Sun. May 26th, 2024

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier is on a roll. In his hugely successful 2016 book “The Coaching Habit” he encouraged you to “Say less” and “Ask more” in your work behavior. In his 2020 sequel “The Advice Trap” he wanted you to “Be humble” and “Stay curious.” Now, in what can be seen as the third book in a trilogy, he is taking you deeper into your own behavior one relationship at a time, and proposing “How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.”

Bungay Stanier’s trilogy has evolved in parallel with a relatively new idea in the career coaching space, the democratization of coaching. When we spoke he shared a blog post from 2012, since taken down, where he wrote about “the need to democratize coaching” because “coaching can feel like something of a gated community. If you’re rich enough or lucky enough, you get to be coached.”

In 2016 Magdalena Mook, Executive Director of the International Coaching Federation, took up the cause asserting “ultimately, coaching should be made available across each level of an organization, to professionals of all ages and levels of experience. This is crucial for a lasting, enterprise-wide impact.” It took scholars three more years to pick up on the idea, with a search on Google Scholar reporting just one article on the subject from 2019 and five more articles so far from 2022 and 2023.

Mook was speaking on behalf of professional coaches, but the Bungay Stanier trilogy and his latest book in particular insist on what you can do, one relationship at a time, to play your part in improving that relationship. To keep the “best possible conversations alive,” he urges you to be more curious about your own behavior along the way. In doing so, he’s proposing that two people can coach one another, without a professional coach into the mix.

Michael Arthur: Can we talk about your insistence that people “take a deeper dive” into their own behavior in a one-to-one relationship?

Book cover for How to Work with (ALMOST) Anyone

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier: It’s a simple enough behavior to describe, but simple doesn’t mean easy. It means staying curious longer, and having a conversation about how we work before we get into what we were working on. It’s easy to say, but there are individual habits and structural expectations and employer organizations that push against that. So, it takes some learning and some courage to do this, and my latest book gives people another chance to capture the message.

The book is written for the person who might say “I’m in an organization, I’m trying to do my best to lead and influence people, I like my work but it’s hard being a leader.” There are tools to not only help you have more success at the work you’re doing, but also bring out the best in the people around you.

Arthur: Would that be true for relationships across organizations too?

Bungay Stanier: That’s right. It’s true for any working relationship that influences your success and your happiness. That means people in your team, your boss, a colleague, a collaborator, a vendor, or a client who could have a mutually beneficial conversation with you.

Arthur: I find myself thinking of some people I’ve been avoiding and what I might do about that.

Bungay Stanier: Sometimes it is healthy to keep avoiding people. Every choice has prizes and punishments. So if you decide to avoid someone there are prizes and punishments for that, and if you decide to try and have a conversation there are prizes and punishments for that. There are some people where it’s just not worth it, but they may be fewer than you might think.

Arthur: Focusing on a particular relationship feels harder than hearing broad advice, to “Be humble” for example.

Bungay Stanier: My hope is that people will work on a “bell curve” of interpersonal relationships, the really good ones at one end, the really hard ones at the other end, and the “solid enough” ones in the middle. All of those could be better. There’s a quote from relationship author John Gottman that says “69% of problems in a relationship are perpetual” and don’t get to be changed. That means 30% of problems are still up for grabs, and can be improved to make relationships more workable, more bearable, more diplomatic, or more civilized. There are all sorts of ways that you can take stuff that sucks, and make it suck less.

I see “How To Work With (Almost) Anyone” as a self-help book wrapped in a business book because the exercises in the book are about “You’ve got to know yourself, and you’ve got to understand how you talk about yourself.” When I think about humility it involves having a sense of who you are, across both your strengths and weaknesses, and being able to talk about “This is who I am in my own version of a complicated and messy, but loyal and occasionally brilliant self.”

Arthur: There’s no mention of artificial intelligence in your work, although there’s a range of approaches out for organizations to apply AI in talent management.

Bungay Stanier performing at a TEDx talk

Chris Holloman

Bungay Stanier: AI can play an interesting role by expressing curiosity. If you come to an AI approach designed to coach you, rather than give you answers, it could be interesting. If I ask ChatGPT to coach me and it goes “Sure what’s on your mind?” Then I go “Well it’s this,” and ChatGPT goes “OK, so what’s the challenge here for you?” and so on. Used in this way, AI can create a safe space for doing some of the work in learning about yourself. However, the work of actually needing to build effective working relationships with the humans in your life needs to get done through people – and you need to build relationships with those people directly.

Arthur: In contrast, would you agree that much AI promotion in talent management work emphasizes the organization’s interests, in recruitment, staffing, succession planning and so on.

Bungay Stanier: You’re always battling the drive for scale. AI can help with process or content questions. With process, I can see how AI’s proponents would say “We can save money and we can take people out through automation, and that means we can scale it.” With content, we can marvel at ChatGPT’s ability to create content but worry about the wider implications of that. Organizations trend toward the classical thinking of spending money to make more money, and people chase after consulting contracts because the money is there.

The question that drives me is “How do you keep the human and the work part of this going? I want work to have a great impact on the planet and also grow the people and their experiences so they become better people, and they unlock and fulfill their potential. However, that’s not the primary goal of organizations. One of my favorite writers on this topic is Peter Block, who has emphasized “giving people responsibility for their own freedom.” That means helping them to understand the shape of their life, and make the best choices that they can.

Arthur: So person-to-person coaching can do more than serve an organization’s goals?

Bungay Stanier: One of the reasons I like person-to-person coaching is that at a somewhat hidden level it’s shifting power structures. If you move from “I’m going to give you advice and tell you what to do,” to “I’m going to ask you a question, and have you figure it out,” that shifts power and accountability and responsibility. So when two people sit down and ask “How can we build the best possible working relationship?” they also shift power, by putting the responsibility for the quality of that relationship into shared hands. They are playing with hierarchy and power in a way that helps humanity flourish.

Arthur: And helping humanity flourish can also help organizations?

Bungay Stanier: I think so. You can think about strategy and culture as the twin DNA of success in an organization, where strategy is bold choices about where to spend time and money, and culture is about having the people best suited to follow through on those bold choices. Culture is both collective and individual, because culture is how people’s everyday behavior interacts with other people’s behavior. So, the quality of an organization’s relationships is the quality of its culture. It’s not the whole of the story but it is a big part of the story.

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