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What is "Coachability," Anyway?
A case for intellectual humility as the core concept
Across domains like sports, academics, and business, having a "growth mindset" - the belief that effort tends to lead to better outcomes, that persistence can be used to overcome obstacles, and that failure is an opportunity to learn - predicts performance and outcomes.
The opposite approach - the "fixed mindset" - is based on the idea that talent propels outcomes, and that failure is an indictment of that talent.
In sport and business, failure is inevitable - so we'd do well to focus on cultivating a mastery approach to the process, which we know will lead to better outcomes personally and professionally.
But how do we know if someone will engage in any of these "mastery behaviors" that are associated with a growth mindset, anyway?
It starts with intellectual humility
Intellectual humility is the idea that someone is willing to acknowledge the limitations of their own knowledge and respects and values that others might have their own knowledge to contribute. Rather than focusing on proving themselves as right or being a "know-it-all," the intellectually humble person is focused on being accurate.
Because the intellectually humble person is more interested in knowing what's right than being right, they tend to look for limitations to their own knowledge and understanding, are curious, insatiable learners, and interact more with ideas different from their own.
This is the foundation of "coachability".
Intellectually humble people behave in ways that increase their likelihood of learning and mastery. They tend to think more deeply and more creatively and are highly motivated to learn. Because they're more motivated to learn, they see failure or obstacles less as something that is a statement about them, and more as a sign that there is a gap between what they know now and what they need to know to be successful.
Research backs this up.
Porter, Schumann, Selmeczy, and Trzesniewski (2020) found that people who are higher in intellectual humility are more likely to pursue mastery than confirmation of their talent or beliefs. Furthermore, intellectually humble people seek out challenges more, give greater effort, and persist longer in solving problems than those lower in intellectual humility.
And better yet: they found it's possible to increase intellectual humility.
Creating coachable athletes
It starts with you as the coach (or parent or leader), and how you think about and talk about failure. Do you view failure as enhancing or debilitating? If you emphasize that failure can help us improve (though it might be harder than you think - see: our post We Don’t Learn from Failure). Still, just framing failure as an opportunity to improve does change the way people experience failure and, in turn, what they do with that experience.
Secondly, don't just talk the talk - be about it. Show athletes how to learn from mistakes. That means owning the mistakes you make, and showing tangibly how you're using that mistake to get better. What changes will you make? What do you need to learn so that the mistake isn't repeated?
Next, keep the stakes realistic. If you're pulling your athletes out after they make their first mistake in the game, or punishing your employees the first time they slip up, you're missing a chance to help them develop intellectual humility. Instead, you're pushing them toward an even worse outcome: hiding their mistakes from you in the future.
Coachability starts with a collaborative exploration of what is going well, what could be improved, and how we can get there.
Bringing it home
If nothing else, the point to digest here is that coachability is not something a person has or doesn't. It's not a trait.
It's a skill.
And like all skills, coachability can be developed by focusing on intellectual humility. Cultivate curiosity in your athletes. Explore failures openly, and look for opportunities to demonstrate your own growth and progress. Create a culture that proactively engages with new and different ideas, embraces conflict, and focuses on getting it right rather than being right or proving right.
Intellectual humility is tough to come by at the highest levels of any profession because so many leaders are compensated for being perceived as the best at what they do. But this is a trap. The moment you think you have it all figured out is the moment that you stop learning, and once you stop learning, it's only a matter of time before you're passed by.
But it doesn't need to be complicated. Stay curious, engage with people with different ideas, and try to learn something new every day. After all, the people who know the most think they have the most to learn.