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Effective Coaching - 6 December 2012

Imagine this scenario. A friend has invited you to her place for dinner. She always takes pride in her cooking and, on this particular occasion she has been slaving in the kitchen for hours, wanting to make a special dish just for you. When dinner is eventually served, you’re startled to see it contains an ingredient you detest. Just looking at it makes you queasy. You don’t want to cause any offence, so you slowly begin to eat the meal, trying desperately to conceal your feelings of disgust.

If that situation were real, do you think you’d be able to disguise how you felt? If you’re like most people, you’d be convinced that despite your best attempts, your friend would see straight through you, realising quickly just how much you hate her cooking.

An experiment, very similar to that scenario, was conducted at Cornell University. The researchers found the participants experienced something known as the illusion of transparency, which means they overestimated the obviousness of their emotions. They thought the friend could tell how they were really feeling, but in reality the friend could not.

The illusion of transparency plays out in other situations, too. When performers are rattled with nerves, they overestimate the degree to which the audience can sense those nerves. When married couples are unhappy, they overestimate their partner’s ability to know when they’re upset. And, of course, it happens in the workplace when leaders overestimate how much employees comprehend what the leader thinks of their performance.

Many of us presume that other people can read our facial expressions and interpret our words more effectively than they actually can – but the truth is they can’t – and your potential to be a great coach is diminished whenever you make such assumptions.

You can test for the illusion of transparency by reflecting on the following question: If a third party were to ask your employees to articulate what you think of their performance, would your employees clearly state the following?

  • The Problem: the aspect of their performance that’s below the required standard
  • The Impact: the consequences of their poor performance on the business
  • The Cause: the underlying reasons why they’re not meeting expectations
  • The Solution: the prescribed actions in place to ensure there’s an improvement

All four are essential points of discussion in a coaching session. If afterwards your employees are unable to state the answers to any of those statements, you can safely bet that the illusion of transparency has infiltrated the way you give feedback, prohibiting your ability to be an excellent coach.

You can overcome it by doing more asking than telling in your coaching sessions. If it’s your employees – rather than you – identifying the problem, the impact, the cause, and the solution, you’ll ramp up their ownership of the situation.

As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.


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