Chapter 3 - Contracting

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The coaching contract

It’s not uncommon for the coach and the coachee to have different expectations of the assignment and relationship. For example, one may see it in terms of medium-term learning, while the other is more focused on solving some specific problems. Wherever this is potentially the case, you can:

Ask the coachee to share why they think a personal (as opposed to legal) contract is needed. Typical responses may be:

  • To clarify expectations about outcomes and behaviours.
  • To provide a baseline to measure progress.
  • To establish the boundaries of the relationship.
  • To establish who is responsible for what in managing the relationship.

Ask what they would expect/like to be in the contract and why. Encourage them to draw up a list of items to include, under two headings:

  • Formal, to be written down.
  • Informal, simply to be discussed so both parties share the same understanding.

Together you can consider:

  • What do we expect to learn from each other?
  • What are our responsibilities towards each other? What are the limits?
  • What responsibilities do we owe to others, if any (e.g. line managers; peers; HR function) as a result of this relationship?
  • Where and how often shall we meet? For how long?
  • What limits (if any) are there on confidentiality?
  • When and how shall we check if this relationship is right for both of us?
  • How happy are you for me to challenge and confront you?
  • How do you feel about receiving blunt feedback from me?
  • Do you feel you can be really open with me? If not, what makes you reticent?
  • Is there anything either of us definitely does not want to talk about?
  • Are we agreed that openness and trust are essential? How will we ensure they happen?
  • Are we both willing to give honest and timely feedback (e.g. to be a critical friend)?
  • What are we prepared to tell others about our discussions?
  • How formal or informal do we want our meetings to be?
  • How will we measure progress?
  • How will we manage the various transitions especially at the end of the formal relationship?
  • To what extent are we prepared to share networks?
  • When and how shall we review the relationship?
  • How will we celebrate achievements?

Compare notes and discuss any differences of view. Anything the coachee declares off limits may well be a key discussion topic once trust is established.

Managing the three-way contract in executive coaching and mentoring

The more stakeholders who can contract in to support the coachee, the better. However, the most significant relationship is typically the coachee’s boss or sponsor. At the very least, they need to contract to:

  • Provide active support and encouragement (not to abdicate responsibility to the coach to ‘fix’ the coachee).
  • Accept that greater understanding of the issues is likely to lead to a revision of the goals – and potentially further demands on them.
  • Agree how they will recognise positive change as it occurs (bosses tend to give less significance and attention to behaviours that don’t fit with their pre-suppositions about direct reports than behaviours that do).

It’s important that the coach isn’t fobbed off with a meeting with the sponsor or an intermediary (a frequent occurrence when the assignment is part of a block contract with an organisation providing multiple coaches). It’s highly likely (if not inevitable) that the various parties will have different expectations about their own and each other’s responsibilities.

Arguably the most common cause of problems coaches bring to supervision is mismatch of expectations at the contracting stage of the relationship. Inexperienced coaches, in particular, tend to see the coachee and their issues in a linear way – the coachee has something they need to address and the coach’s job is to help them find the internal resources to address it. This is the core of both performance and solution-focused coaching. But many coachee issues are much more complicated and systemic. They require approaches that recognise and work with the multiple systems, of which the coachee is a part. Peers, direct reports and other key stakeholders may all have a substantial influence on the likelihood of achieving sustainable change – particularly at the behavioural or transformational levels.

The three-way conversation between coach, coachee and coachee’s boss (sometimes a four-way event, with Human Resources or coaching sponsor also attending) is more than a formality. It’s a vital part of the coaching process. Our recommended approach starts with clarifying the purpose and importance of contracting, as the basis for clarifying the contract itself – which we suggest has three key components: psychological, outcomes-focused and systemic.

Clarifying the three parts of the contract

An integral part of the agenda is establishing the three core parts of the contract.

The psychological contract is essentially about inputs, relationships and the environment, in which the coaching takes place. It starts with the motivation of each of the stakeholders:

  • What makes them think that coaching is a suitable intervention for this issue at this time?
  • What is their previous experience of coaching?
  • What is the coachee’s commitment to making the coaching assignment work?
  • What is the line manager’s and/or sponsor’s commitment to providing the required level of support? (What expectations do they have of their input?)
  • Where does the responsibility lie for identifying issues, gathering feedback, giving feedback and so on?

The outcomes contract addresses a package of issues relating to intended and unforeseen outcomes from coaching. These include:

  • How each of the parties perceives coaching to add value. (For example, through short-term improvement in performance; supporting the coachee through an unfamiliar transition; focused on problems or focused on opportunities.)
  • What kind of goals are they? (For example, ‘towards’ goals [e.g. I will contact 10 customers over the next month] or ‘away from’ goals [e.g. I will not miss any coachees with a regular catch up call]; or short-term vs. long-term goals.)
  • Performance outcomes versus learning outcomes.
  • The potential to review and revise goals.
  • Who owns the outcomes/goals? (The coachee? The sponsor? Both equally?)

The systems contract encourages all parties to take a wider perspective, recognising that success depends upon engaging with the key influencing systems as much as upon the efforts of coach and coachee. Among questions it addresses are:

  • What forces will work in support of the outcomes contract?
  • What might get in the way?
  • What is our strategy for ensuring the coachee gets the support they need?
  • Who else's support is needed and how?

It can also be helpful to review with the coachee and their boss/sponsor some examples of where coaching has been less effective than it might have been, because all three parties were not aligned in their expectations.

In short, far from being an administrative task, the three-way contracting conversation is an essential part of the coaching process. In essence, it is coaching the coachee’s system and hence is important in preparing them for thinking about their issues in more complex, systemic ways.

Managing allegiance in the coaching relationship/stakeholder management

A recurrent theme in coaching supervision is the complexity of managing expectations and conversations with other stakeholders in the coaching relationship. The coachee’s line manager and HR, as well as, in some cases, important peers of the coachee, all have a view of what the coach should be doing – and this can create both unwanted pressure, confusion and conflict.

Sustainable, significant change in the coachee's inner systems can often only happen if there is corresponding and supportive change in the system(s) around them. Creating clarity – especially about the responsibilities of each of the people in the system – can head off many of the problems relating to unmatched expectations. It helps right at the start, in the contracting phase, to ensure that all parties reflect on and make commitments in response to the following three questions:

  • What are you going to do to support change in the coachee?
  • To what extent are you willing to change what you do to support the changes you want in (coachee)?
  • How will you notice change when it happens?

Other practical steps include:

  • Seek permission and create the expectation up front that the coach will also, as necessary, coach the other key players in the system.
  • Build in three-way or four-way meetings with the express intention of reviewing the system. This is very different from the typical review meeting, which puts all the emphasis on the coachee's perceived progress.
  • Create the expectation that opinions about coachee progress may often differ. For example, the coachee may think that they have made substantial progress, while their line manager may disagree. Agree what will happen, when this is the case.
  • Emphasise the need for clarity. At the beginning of the assignment, asking the three key questions above sets expectations and provides a framework for reminding all three parties of their responsibilities. It also helps to clarify the coach's responsibilities and avoid comments like: ‘You seem to be taking their (the coachee's) side’.
  • Clarify the hierarchy of responsibility for each. This should again be a multi-faceted conversation. The coach's responsibility will normally be first to the coachee, and then in an agreed order to the organisation, the boss and the system. The coachee's responsibilities may be divided between the priorities set for them by their boss, their own agenda for personal development and the system. The boss's and HR's responsibilities include the organisation, the coachee and the system. The reason for including the system in all of their responsibilities is that change is dependent on the combined impact of integrating efforts of each of the parties.

There is no guarantee, of course, that this will remove all of the potential problems relating to mismatched expectations and different perspectives. But it does set the ground for honest and challenging conversations, which may keep the assignment on course!

Establishing the grounds for relationship success

Initial contracting can often be a brief and slightly embarrassing affair. This simple exercise makes the process of setting out mutual expectations a lot more fun and, it seems, improves both parties’ recollections of the agreed behavioural expectations.

  • The coach and the coachee prepare a descriptive list for the coach and/or coachee from hell. For example:
    • What attitudes would they show? Always talking, never listening.
    • What behaviours would they exhibit? Arrogance.
    • What would they not do? Overfamiliarity.
    • Kind of things they would do? Constantly postponing meetings.
    • What kind of things would they not say?
  • The two parties exchange their lists and compare. This helps to generate rapport and opens up specific concerns and fears about the relationship.
  • Together, the coach and coachee extract themes that are appropriate for defining the positive behaviours that each expect from the other.
  • The coach moves the conversation away from the relationship, to examine the context in which it will operate. She/he uses questions such as:
  • What would undermine our relationship, or prevent it from working as well as it should?
  • How will we make sure we don’t fall into any of these traps?