Capability growth

Coaching when they will do the wrong thing

My last couple of articles have been about presenting ideas so that people listen to what you are saying.

But what happens if you explain something to people and then they decide to do the wrong thing anyway?

Of course it is possible that you were wrong and that they are right.

But what if you are sure that they are about to do the wrong thing and that it will hurt them when they do?

The care factor

When people are about to make a mistake, I often stop to ask myself how much I care.

If I don’t care much what they do then I can just keep my mouth shut

Sometimes I have found myself arguing with people when I really should just let them make their own call and move on. So one of the things that I am still working on is to avoid expressing an opinion where there is no need to.  Instead, a good coach is one who let’s people form their own opinions.

But what if I do care that the person I am coaching is going to make a mistake and I think I should tell them?

Low care decisions

Consider just keeping your opinion to yourself, or just mention that you have a different subjective view, and then move on,  if:

  1. This is really a question of style or opinion. For example, if you have a favourite agile tool and the team want to use the “wrong” one. Let them use the one they like and remind yourself that your job is not to force them to comply with your will, but to help them make good decisions for themselves.
  2. The cost of failure is pretty low and they can fix things later. Here the value of learning will out way the cost of being wrong. So let them make their own call and then if they are wrong then help them move forward.
  3. They are smart people and you might be wrong. Here you might assume that you know what to do because of your vast experience and decent intellect, but it may turn out that the people you are coaching also have more experience than you credit them with and sometimes they are right in spite of everything.

So when the care factor is low, you can kick back and watch them do the wrong thing.

But there is an art to this. What you do after you kick back to watch them (potentially) make a mistake, can make a difference. In fact the way you deal with their potential mistake can help you determine whether you are an evil coach (ie you are focused on impressing people and generating a need for people to consult you) or you are a good coach (ie focused on helping people build confidence, make better decisions and develop greater resilience).

If you are an evil coach then even a minor disagreement is a great opportunity to increase your power and prestige.

Using the opportunity for evil

Here is the simple 3 step process for enhancing your evil empire when you think the person or team you are coaching is about to make a pretty big mistake:

  1. Simply state your opinion and then let them disagree.
  2. Now roll your eyes or look condescending.
  3. Kick back an relax until your next opportunity for evil appears.

But what does and “your next opportunity for evil” look like.

If you pay attention then you will soon have the opportunity for one of these two approaches:

  1. The next time you talk to another evil coach , share what happened as an example of how dumb your clients are.
    • This will help to boost your own ego and simultaneous reduce you feel of accountability for the outcome achieved by “these nice but clearly inferior” people.
  2. when the team fail, or make a mistake along the way, leap in and remind them that you were right all along. You could see clearly that their stupidity would lead to this outcome and now you can look clever while they feel pretty dumb. Maybe they will listen to you next time and do what you suggest without questioning you.

A more advanced technique – the self-fulfilling coaching prophecy

The most advanced technique, though, is a little more difficult and far more destructive.

This is the famous “self fulfilling prophesy approach”.

Self fulfilling predictions are great for undermining good teams

Here is how you apply it:

  • Start the same way – listen to what they are going to do and realise that it is a mistake.
  • Tell yourself that you will “let them fail for their own good” and either:
    • Make sure that the people you are working with know you are doing this,  so that they feel hesitant and second guess themselves; or
    • Tell others behind their back so that other people will hesitate to help … and will expect the team to fail.  This should increase the chance of failure automatically.
  • Now make sure you facilitate things so that your team actually do fail. Even good ideas need time to be understood properly and even good ideas will fail if people don’t get to implement them properly.

But can this really work?

I have seen facilitators actually do the following and it has made both good and questionable ideas a lot harder to implement.


  • Put any action needed at the end of each meeting or workshop so people never get to it;
  • Raise the issue without notice when people are unprepared or really busy and then hold an urgent discussion to explore it. Thrash the issue out while there is no chance to really explore it or no time for people to provide the evidence to support it; or
  • Link the discussion to something you know will challenge it. For example if the team wanted a budget for biscuits then bring the topic up while discussing the fact that the team are behind budget at the moment.  Do not raise it when you are talking about team morale.

I have also seen coaches agree to do something and then constantly nitpick and undermine suggestions until the idea fails. Small persistent nitpicking can bring many ideas down.

OK – I am not sure that people do this deliberately.  But I have seen people in authority (team leaders, coaches and other leaders) act as if they support an idea and then, through their actions and clear opinion, make it  a lot harder for the team to prove the idea has merit.

In fact if you are originally against an idea, it is possible to act against it, even when you planned to be supportive.  So if you want to be a good coach then this is something to check on – are you really letting the ideas the team has flourish, or do you only really support the “right and sensible ones.”

Using the opportunity for good

Some coaches choose to be good, and this can be harder.  But it also has its own rewards.

Good Karma, for example, seems to favour the kind coach.

If you honestly think a mistake is being made or an opinion is wrong , then this is a great opportunity to demonstrate the exact behaviours you are coaching others to adopt.

Be honest

State your opinion and then agree to disagree.  Don’t sit there and scowl or roll your eyes while saying “it is up to you, I am just the coach.”

Support the team, even if it is not what you would have done

But now the hard part comes in. Once they go in the “wrong” direction, then you can still support the team.

You have said your piece but now you work with the team to honestly help them make their approach work.

This is harder than waiting to leap in and say “I told you so.”

But it also gives you greater presence and stamina if you focus on moving forward, rather than waiting for things to fail. This somehow seems to bring better karma and is apparently a thing coaches should do.

Generate better karma and resilience

When you start by being honest about both your opinion and your willingness to help the team, you set up an opportunity for good karma.  Have a look at the following statement and see what you would think of the person saying it.  Then ask yourself if you honestly say this when you disagree:

That is not what I would have done. But if the team makes that decision then I will have your back. Let’s make it work.

Now work with the team, hoping things work out.

If the idea or approach fails, and you honestly tried to make it work, then you can turn things around because the team know you are on their side and know that they gave it a chance to succeed.  Now they can let it go and move on.

If, on the other hand, the team actually succeed, even if they adopt a different approach in the future or could have done something smarter, then the team build confidence.  In my experience nobody really remembers they took along the way,  only the energy giving feeling of making it work.

Either outcome actually builds good karma for both the team and the coach. People feel more resilient, more aligned and more able to control their destiny.

Medium care factor

Sometimes you really think and approach or idea is bad. You can work with the team and they can learn from the experience, but actually the cost of failure will be greater than the benefit of learning.

They will lock in constraints or damage their reputation, for example with this truly terrible idea:

Let’s go agile while having no releases for 2 months and deferring most of the testing until the end. That should work well.

Here you disagree and you are sure it will end badly. Very badly.

You also think it will be hard to recover from two months of development with no testing or releases.

Make a choice

In the end you have some options:

  • Pretend you agree and wait for evil opportunities to say you knew all along it was dumb. It will hurt the team but you can cover your backside as they crash;
  • Decide that this is a battle worth fighting. You are actually entitled to make a stand. A coach is allowed to share their views and even fight for what they believe in.
  • Decide to let this battle go, but focus on an area that you believe will make a big enough difference to give the team the resilience and growth the still benefit.  This may not be optimal but sometimes it is worth letting it go if you cannot stop the problem happening and you will be there to help if it does go bad.
  • Use the powerful “double prediction” approach. This is also known by some movie watchers as the sliding doors approach for some reason.

If you are a good coach then you will feel a little sick if you pretend you agree when the idea is really bad.

If you make a stand then you need to do three things:

  • Take the time to present your ideas clearly with evidence that people can assess for themselves
  • Come up with a plan of attack if they listen to you. If you convince them to change direction then they will need to be able to choose a new direction AND to make it work; and
  • Be prepared to lose. You need to be honest with yourself and decide “what if, in the end, they go down the wrong path?”

If you lose the argument, then for me the most important thing to decide is whether you work with them as best you can, or get out of the way and let them try.

I sometimes feel that if you really don’t agree, then maybe they need someone who DOES believe in the mission.

But for tough situations there is also the other approach – the double prediction approach.

The double prediction approach

We disagree, you think this will happen and I think that will happen.

Let’s go with your option for 2 weeks, but let’s agree on what we should be seeing at the end of that period if you are right and what we would expect to see if I was right.

To apply this technique you need to disagree with someone (or a group). You also need to respect them and to be honest. So this is not a good technique for evil coaches.

Here is what you do first – agree on what you are arguing about

  1. Clarify what you do agree on. For example to ultimate goal or the value of the work. “We both want to get something useful to the client as soon as possible and neither wants to spend 6 weeks fighting fires”
  2. Clarify what you disagree on – “you think we should work long hours to deliver what the client really wants and I think we should slow down to test and work through things, delivering less but making sure it works”
  3. Clarify that you understand their view – “you think in the circumstances, this is the best we can do. Fair enough”
    • This can be harder than it sounds. Don’t clarify why you think they are wrong – clarify why they think they are right. Make sure you clarify their view properly.
  4. State your own opinion – “I think in the circumstances it is better to test as we go and deliver less features”
    • You do not need to convince them, just be clear that they understand your opinion. It is fine that they clarify why you are wrong.

Next, agree to a course of action, preferably theirs.

Predict what will happen if they are right (a single prediction) and then predict what will happen if you are right (the double prediction). You don’t need to agree on what will happen, only what would happen if either side was right.

So do this:

  1. Agree to the action to take – “let’s go hard, working long hours and giving it all we have got”
  2. Agree that you will reflect on the decision later – say in two weeks. – “let’s go with your approach for two weeks and then check in again”
  3. But you don’t just agree to whine in two weeks. You both make a prediction:
    1. Single prediction – If person A is right, what will it look like in 2 week? “If you are right, it will be hard but we will be getting through work with limited involvement and we feel confident of quality”
    2. Double prediction – If person B is right, what will it look like in 2 weeks? “We e will still be falling behind and we will be losing confidence in our quality”
  4. Finally – give the wrong (or right) approach a try and book in the review session. Whoever is right, you will have the opportunity to reflect, collaborate and improve.

Try that technique – it is hard but works surprisingly well.

It forces you to be clear on what value (or doom) you will see if your opinion is correct AND gives the team permission to give one approach a good try.

Once they have had a real go for (say) two weeks, coming back to reassess gives people time to think, more evidence to base an opinion on and a chance to discuss options again as a team. You might continue with plan A, you might stop and move to plan B … or you might even move in a direction you had not anticipated.

Closing thoughts on the double prediction approach

That is all the rules you need to use the technique.

Note that the two week timing is arbitrary. You choose whatever time period you want.

Note also that I assumed her you would try one or the other approach.

You can agree that you will pursue option A, while doing some of the steps of option B, before committing again. You just need to be honest about what you are going to do BEFORE you go and do it.

Really high care factor mistakes

OK, you can let people go if there is a low cost of failure, or a high benefit in leraning.

You can also make a stand or try the double prediction approach if you really care enough.

But what if they are going to do something really wrong. Like mix Start Trek and Star Wars characters into the same story, or force the team to work every weekend for months.

I will leave that until the next article. But I will say this – if you can be effective in winning (or graceful losing) the “low and medium care” problems you will have more attention and energy left for the big ones.

Most of the times the team disagrees with you, letting them make their own decisions and then supporting them while being honest about your opinion turns out to be a good enough approach.


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