In order for people to learn new things, or to change unhelpful behaviours, they have to create new neuronal connections and hardwire new maps into their brains. This cannot happen through ‘telling’ - it can only happen through their own thinking. The role of the coach is to encourage such thinking through generous listening and skilful questioning, says Tom Flatau

Coaching is a skill that has one of the highest returns on investment ­ one study reported it at 800%. So it is not surprising that once your managers start coaching, you can expect breakthrough results for your entire organisation.

For over two decades people have known the power of coaching rather than ‘telling’. Yet the default technique for managers still remains the telling approach. I admit, in a bid to reach goals, it is tempting to direct – but when we ‘tell’ people what to do we only get limited results. Telling does little to help them, or the team, further down the line.
On the other hand, coaching people to work things out for themselves and find their own solutions has a huge impact on performance, and ultimately frees up a manager’s precious time. Neuroscience research reveals that learning new things and changing unhelpful behaviours can only be done by creating and practicing new habits – which wires new maps into the brain.
No two people can possibly have the same brain. As we go through life having experiences, our brains are continually making new neuronal connections. The more these connections are used, the more they become hard-wired, creating a unique landscape. As an analogy, think how a stream carves its way through the land, eventually becoming the Grand Canyon.
Because of this uniqueness, we all experience reality, learn, and make sense of the world in very different ways. This is why the telling approach is ineffective. If we tell someone how to do something, we are operating from our own brain’s map of the world, not theirs. What makes sense to us doesn’t necessarily make sense to someone else.
The two key tools of coaching, generous listening and asking questions, work so well because they stimulate people to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Every ‘aha’ moment is a new circuit being wired into the brain.

That is why I am a firm believer in managers adopting a coaching rather than telling approach. Coaching doesn’t generally over-analyse unhelpful thoughts and behaviours as this can embed them even more. Instead, the coach will help the coachee focus on the all-important acquisition of new, more meaningful maps (new perspectives).
Once these new maps have been created, practice is essential to embed the new thinking, and a coaching manager must support an employee in using these new paths, especially in the early stages when the temptation to revert is strong.
Remember! An old path never disappears. This explains why we sometimes have set backs – particularly if we are stressed, and we revert back to old habits. But as we use the new path more and more, the old one starts to get over-grown and less attractive to use.
To give an example, I once had a sales person in my team who was convinced she was lousy at her job. My telling her she was good simply fell on deaf ears because my map did not correlate with her deeply embedded neuronal map.
Things only changed when I stopped asking ‘Why?’ questions, and instead asked her to give me a daily example of her good work. Over time this helped her to create a new map and repetition strengthened this neuronal pathway.
A coaching-management style can double the productivity (and engagement) of employees. So what is the lesson for a manager who wants to improve staff performance?
That’s right – resist the temptation of telling, and instead listen and ask questions until they come up with the answers for themselves. That, in a nutshell is coaching!