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How to Be a Better Coach, According to Neuroscience

A new study finds that great coaches don't focus on finding and fixing their team's weaknesses. They do this instead.
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Sure, running a business is about maximizing the bottom line, but few entrepreneurs care only about the dollars and cents. For most, going into work every day is also about making the world a slightly better place and helping your team get better at what they do.

In other words, most business owners aspire to be not just managers but coaches.

How do you learn to be a great coach?

Thinking back to your Little League days or star turn on the girls’ volleyball team in high school may give you some inspiration. Didn’t the coach point out your weaknesses and provide guidance on how to get better? Your memory doesn’t fail you--traditionally, coaching has largely been about identifying areas in need of improvement and supporting folks as they work towards better performance. But according to the latest science, there's actually a better approach.

Positive vs. Negative

A new study, published in Social Neuroscience, used brain sans to test two different approaches to coaching on a group of undergraduates. The first approach mirrored traditional coaching, asking students to identify areas in which they might be struggling at school and think about ways to improve. Coaches asked questions such as: "What challenges have you encountered or do you expect to encounter in your experience here?" and "How are you doing with your courses?"

In contrast to this negative approach, the second group of coaches focused on possibilities and positives, asking the students about their aspirations and urging them to visualize their future goals. They asked questions such as, "If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?" The student volunteers were then run through a functional MRI to examine how their brains responded to the two techniques.

The different types of coaching lit up different areas of the brain, the scientists found, with the positive approach stimulating areas involved in:

  • Visual processing, which come online when we imagine future events

  • Global processing, or the ability to see the big picture

  • Feelings of empathy and emotional safety

  • The motivation to proactively pursue big goals rather than simply react to loss or fear

The Takeaway

If you want people to dream big and actually have a shot at reaching their lofty ambitions, the list above would be a pretty good place to start, right? The researchers thought so too. "These differences in brain activity led the researchers to conclude that positive coaching effectively activates important neural circuits and stress-reduction systems in the body by encouraging mentees to envision a desired future for themselves," UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center reports in their write up of the research.

More research needs to be done, and the encouraging effects of a positive coaching style don’t necessarily mean there's no place for the more traditional find-the-problem-and-fix-it approach, but the results should give business owners a nudge towards a positive coaching style. Why not try spurring your team to dream big, set ambitious goals, and nurture their strengths?

How do you approach coaching your team?




Last updated: Mar 3, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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