Reflective Coaching to Lead Change

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

Have you ever worked in a team that was in turmoil, characterised by a downward spiral with worsening results, top talent leaving, people with different agendas, a culture of uncertainty and confidence at an all time low?

In this scenario, there is a clear need for the leader and the team to manage this transition, from failure to success.

As the leader, they understand that they need to ‘stop the rot’, but how?

In times of change, systematic and rigorous forms of reflection are needed and it’s the role of the leader to assist their teams through reflective coaching. And by reflective coaching, we are suggesting a new kind of ‘improvement conversation’ may be needed, which can lead to better action and winning performance.

The Traditional Approach to Improvement Conversations

Before we lay out a new way of coaching, let’s examine the traditional approach to reflective coaching.

A customary starting point for reflective coaching in the management of change focuses on problems or ‘opportunities’. Asking deficit-type questions that focus on gaps, areas for improvement and weaknesses are typically about what went wrong rather than what went well. They are about problems rather than achievements, failures rather than successes. They are essentially about the kinds of things you feel you want to get rid of, to eliminate and fix. If we’re not careful, an obsession with problems quickly becomes a problem! When we focus on problems, we begin to construct a world in which problems are central. They become the dominant realities that burden us every day.

Whilst we are advocates of reflecting on problems, it should not be done at the expense of other aspects of our working lives. If we push too hard with this approach to driving change in employee behaviour, research shows employees find it harder to consider alternatives and experiment with new ways of doing things.

The challenge then, for leaders of change, is to emphasise and encourage positive emotions.

Creating Positive Change

Leaders need to think about emphasising successes for individuals, focus on positive feedback from customers and highlight good performances within the team, rather than being too pre-occupied with solving problems and correcting negatives within the organisation. This is not a matter of neglecting issues and faults within the workplace, but redressing the balance so that the positives (success stories, achievements, those things that make us feel proud and fulfilled at work) are celebrated to enhance future performance. In any process of the management of change, we suggest that we grow in the direction in which we ask questions.

This principle is grounded in the question: “how can you be the best example of yourself every day?” Fuelling people’s positive emotions allows them to be more open-minded, more receptive to new ideas, more adaptive, more flexible, more resilient and have greater overall well-being.


Thinking back to the scenario of a team in turmoil. One question for the leader might be: “How positive am I, and those around me, that we can change from a ‘losing’ to a ‘winning’ team again?” Another question might be: “How much value am I placing on coaching out weaknesses rather than coaching in strengths?” A more blunt and direct way of saying this is: “If the change process is all about getting rid of weaknesses and failures, will the team become stronger and more successful?” By asking these questions, leaders can better understand their strategies for leading change.

An Appreciative Change Leadership Process

The following process is a shift to a framework characterised by positive questions that allow leaders to explore different kinds of conversations.

Question 1: What’s successful and positive right now? (Appreciate)

This approach embraces an intention to appreciate and understand one’s own and others’ gifts, talents, limitations, self-worth, identity, role, responsibilities and accountability. The intention is to use the practices of reflection to deepen appreciations and see this as a valuable starting point for change.

Question 2: What do we need to keep doing and stop doing to make this better in the future? (Imagine)  

The intention here is to document learning about what works and why and how to amplify this. It does not ignore the need to address what must be changed and in what way/s, and therefore about how to improve practice. It is associated with seeing with fresh eyes. This intention weaves together new or different ways of thinking, talking and working. Here, we invite managers of change to learn to ‘let go’ of some old feelings, thoughts and ways of working and be open to consider new and different ones by embracing a strengths-based approach to reflective practices.

Question 3: How do we do this? (Design)

This intention harnesses individual expertise and connects ‘islands of innovation’, bringing both together into a collective wisdom. Criticality and creativity are required along with a preparedness to question out-of-step practices and policies. Building collective wisdom is triggered by asking the practical question: “How do we do this?” In some circumstances, it requires emotional literacy and political insights from business leaders to cultivate innovative ideas within their teams.

Question 4: Who takes action and with what consequences and impact? (Act)

The intention here is to do, or achieve something, with this collective wisdom, bearing in mind that moving forward is only one option. Deciding to take no action might also be a positive step. Change is not always about stepping forwards or back, but in making the right step. What is crucial is that all involved document the decisions being made and the reasons for them. In moving forward, we leave a ‘footprint’, a mark. If we do not record these ‘footprints’ in some way, we have no way of knowing where we have come from or how far we have travelled.

We will finish with some words from Sir Clive Woodward, an elite sporting coach and successful businessman:

“… when coaching a professional team I realised how crucial it was for everyone to absolutely enjoy what they were doing, to commit all the time. Yes, there were pressures to win but we still had to go to work on Monday morning, so it was even more important that the coach and the players enjoyed the experience. Number one for me is that I must enjoy it and number two is as a coach, I really want you to enjoy it – it’s about getting the game across and removing the fear factor and allowing players to express themselves.”


This blog is taken from our Leading Change eBook. Download your copy today.

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