• Sherry St. Clair

How Coaching with Humility Strengthens Human Connections

Humble leaders leverage relationships to empower individual and collective efficacy


How Coaching with Humility Strengthens Human Connections

Humble leaders leverage relationships to empower individual and collective efficacy

Writing for HBR, Dan Cable—professor of organizational behavior at the London School of Economics—shares research he conducted with a food delivery service in the UK. The industry had recently seen several new entrants, which were posing a greater and greater threat to this particular delivery service’s viability. The more their business contracted, the more leadership focused on cost-cutting measures and improving delivery times. Accordingly, managers met weekly with delivery personnel to tick off that week’s list of complaints and apparent mistakes the delivery staff made. Not surprisingly, these meetings were demoralizing for everyone involved, and they failed to improve the company’s competitive standing. 

Leadership called in consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) who recommended that instead of focusing on metrics, leadership focus on humans. PWC advised adopting a strategy of offering the best customer services in the market. To achieve this, Cable wrote, they would have to cull market intelligence from the people who knew the market best—the delivery personnel, who interacted with customers every day. The weekly critiques were replaced with check-ins where managers were trained to do one thing—open every meeting with the same question: “How can I help you deliver excellent service?”

Delivery staff had developed high mistrust of management and leadership; they had grown tired of what felt like constant criticism, control, and a lack of interest in their knowledge. It took time, but as delivery staff grew more open, they began voicing ideas. They also shared little innovations they’d conceived to improve the customer experience or the delivery process—innovations that were once labeled as “mistakes” but were now seen as clever solutions and adopted broadly to improve customer service. These employees were also publicly acknowledged for their ideas and contribution, which then spurred others to share their ideas.

According to Cable, the net effect was a more open, collaborative, and innovative environment with employees who felt valued for their contributions—as well as markedly improved customer service. This was achieved by tapping the experience, expertise, and on-the-ground insights of the people best positioned to know most about the customers and the processes to fulfill their orders and engage positively with them.

In our culture, we like to extol the charismatic, powerful leader—those who can speak with command and impose an almost mystical influence on the people. These types of leaders might excel on social media and in the public sphere. But you might be surprised to learn they tend to excel less in their leadership roles. Charismatic leaders are more likely to emphasize centralizing and asserting power and display a command-and-control style. They tend to be overly-concerned with outcomes (and, in most cases, will take credit for positive outcomes), and therefore view employees as a means to an end. In turn, employees are fearful, less creative, and not incentivized to learn and grow. 

The opposite of such leaders are humble leaders. In recent years, their stock has been rising, mostly due to a plethora of research that shows humble leaders yield better outcomes, including improved employee performance and work quality. Humble leadership is correlated with lower employee turnover and absenteeism. Contrary to common misconception, humble leaders can be ambitious and competitive; they are simply more likely to put the focus on others and give credit to their teams. Additional research links humble leaders to stronger leadership teams, amplified collaboration, and more openness and flexibility when devising strategic plans.

Research on humility in general suggests that, as a stable personality trait, it is associated with sincerity, modesty, fairness, truthfulness, and unpretentiousness. Humble people are more attuned to their weaknesses and more likely to state when they don’t know something or ask for help. Those with this cluster of attributes are less likely to manipulate others, stretch the rules to meet their own objectives, act greedily, or behave hypocritically. 

In my experience of striving for humble leadership and observing it, I believe humble leadership derives its power from how it necessarily puts the emphasis on the human. If humility is characterized by “an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities, and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused,” then the humble person will rely on others to fill in their inevitable information and experience gaps. By definition, the humble leader recognizes that she cannot know everything and needs others who know more to help her understand and lead from the most informed place possible. The humble leader accepts that she cannot always know what is best for others. She can, however, provide the support others need to be their best.

Where other leaders might focus on the budget or key performance metrics, humble leaders always prioritize nurturing relationships with their employees. This is because it is through relationships that humble leaders earn trust and make employees feel safe sharing their ideas, expressing their knowledge, and collaborating openly and respectfully with others. Put another way, it is through relationships that leaders can get the most out of their employees.

Since you’re here, you know that the best coaches are coaches redefined; that is, you know instructional coaching requires strong leadership skills. Please know you will achieve your greatest coaching potential through humble leadership. Humility is the launchpad to strengthened relationships with the teachers you coach and your capacity to best meet their needs and serve their growth. It is also the launchpad to your greatest potential as a leader and a coach.

To embody humble leadership:

Keep the emphasis off yourself and on your teachers. To nurture relationships, I always advise coaches to start coaching sessions by asking teachers how they’re doing and allowing them to speak about their personal lives so that you may show your compassion. Once that humanizing conversation has closed, start every coaching session the way the managers at the UK delivery service started their weekly check-ins: ask the teacher, “How can I help you grow today and better serve your students?” This simple question is an instant reminder to teachers that this work is about them, not you. Reiterating that you have no agenda other than supporting their development will nurture the trust that is a requirement to healthy and strong relationships with your teachers. When teachers trust you, they will become open to your feedback and guidance. There’s a quote that’s attributed to several people that captures the heart of this perfectly: “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

Know your limits & know your teachers’ ‘on-the-ground’ insights. No human can ever know everything. Nor are we expected to—a fact that humble leaders recognize as an asset, not a weakness. Coaches redefined are always learning and growing their skills; inherent in that is that we are always striving to know more because we do not know all. One thing you will not ever directly know is what your teachers’ students need in order to succeed. Such insights can only come from your teachers. If you do not ask for these insights, your coaching will be incomplete and, more importantly, fail to support teachers in meeting students’ needs.

Just as the delivery personnel had “market insights”—observations and information directly from customers—your teachers have “student insights”—direct observations about how and why their students might be struggling. Make a habit of asking your teachers what they believe their students need; doing so signals your respect for teachers and also encourages that they actively participate in your work together, which will reinforce a trusting relationship with them. Together, devise a plan to help your teachers gain the things they themselves need—skills, materials, additional supports, etc.—in order to meet their students’ needs. Coaching is, after all, a co-creation; it takes at least two people’s experiences, wisdom, skills, and insights to unleash the greatest potential and growth, as yours alone are only half the picture.

Unleash collective teacher efficacy. In terms of how humble leadership can impact organizations as a whole, one of its greatest effects is how it fosters collaboration—and, therefore, also allows teachers to nurture and benefit from trusting and healthy relationships with each other. The humble leader leads; that is, she does not micromanage or declare how work must be done. Once she has offered sufficient support and helped her team gather the tools they need to succeed, she gets out of the way and remains on the sidelines to offer additional guidance as needed. She trusts her team to do the work they need to do in order to meet goals and grow together. 

An ultimate goal of the coach redefined is to create a learning organization; that is, a school that is guided by a culture of learning. I devote the last chapter of Coaching Redefined to talking coaches through the steps to unlock ongoing learning in the school. In a learning organization, teachers are learning together through structured and group learning processes they lead and manage (with your support as needed). Where self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capacity to learn and succeed, collective efficacy is a belief in the group’s capacity to learn and succeed. As an instructional influence, collective teacher efficacy (CTE) requires that teachers believe they can positively affect student outcomes through collective use of high-effect size and evidence-based instructional strategies. According to John Hattie, CTE is the number one influence on student achievement, with an effect size of 1.57. True learning organizations—where individuals are empowered to advocate for themselves and design collaborative learning that meets their changing needs such that CTE is unleashed—are only possible when humble leaders relinquish control and trust teachers.

Model humility. Admit to your teachers when you don’t know something and commit to finding answers. Acknowledge mistakes you make as you coach, offering apologies as appropriate. Ask for help. Ask your teachers for their ideas and insights, making them feel safe to share. Incorporate their ideas and insights so that they know you value them. Give credit where credit is due—publicly. Celebrate the achievements of your teachers and their students. 

Modeling humble leadership will encourage others to behave with humility as well. When your teachers are also humble in their pursuit of ambitious goals, they will be more supportive of each other—reinforcing collective teacher efficacy, and thereby student success, yet again. 

C.S. Lewis once said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” In leading with humility, you will see your relationships with all the teachers you coach become stronger, more open, and more productive. I assure you that, as a result, you will not think less of yourself; yet, you will also not grow arrogant. Rather, you will develop more of that quiet confidence that humble leaders carry in their hearts at all times.

How can I help you? Please connect with me to share your own concerns or ask for assistance. We truly are all in this together.

Website: Reflective Learning, LLC

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