The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) conference that I recently attended left me feeling hopeful, overwhelmed and concerned. Hopeful because so many bright, caring people are dedicating their minds, hearts and energy to unraveling the multifaceted challenge of creating more inclusive and equitable cultures. I was overwhelmed by the plethora of approaches that are being experimented with, the astounding array of stakeholder communities that were involved and the sheer magnitude of the behavioral and systemic changes that are needed for enduring change to take hold. And lastly, I was concerned because DEI is only one of many system-wide initiatives that organizations are focused on right now.

DEI initiatives are a perfect storm of complexity. There are so many moving parts, it is impossible for anyone to know what actions will deliver the desired results, when the hoped-for changes will take hold or what the impact of those changes might be. Turning complexity of any kind into meaningful, lasting change is our current shared challenge, along with establishing a coaching culture that enables organizations to turn complexity into opportunity.

Complexity Has Changed Change

Many of the initiatives at the top of corporate priority lists right now are complex: establishing more just and equitable cultures, envisioning and adopting sustainable practices, attracting and retaining the best and brightest people and piloting organizations through the speed bumps of disruption without losing momentum. All these challenges have one thing in common: They require people to think, act and interact in new ways across the enterprise and beyond.

Changing human behavior at scale is very different from changing technical or tactical systems. People cannot be forced to engage in lasting change — they have to choose to change their behavior. After coaching people for more than a quarter-century, I can attest that people are capable of breathtaking metamorphoses when they choose to change. I can also attest that people pose an equally huge obstacle to change efforts when they choose not to change. The need to inspire people to change their behavior at scale is what makes complex initiatives more challenging than any other kind of change.

Why Do People Change?

Why do people choose to change? People change when they believe:

  • They will personally benefit from making the change.
  • They have the support they need to successfully make the change and attain the benefit.
  • The reward for changing will be more than worth the risk of possibly failing.

None of these conditions are met when we use traditional leadership approaches of telling people what to do, then subtly — or overtly — implying threats if they don’t do what they are told. In fact, our “direct and correct” approaches to leadership that leverage fear to compel compliance actually discourage change. Fearful people aren’t open to learning. They won’t take risks, and as a result, they don’t change. It’s not their fault — it’s how our brains work. When people are frightened, they put all their energy into trying to keep themselves safe by reducing perceived risks. That is the opposite of what is needed to address complex issues.

Leading Through Learning

Commanding compliance is not going to cut through the ever-growing thicket of challenges that complexity generates. We will need original thinking to imagine new ideas and envision elegant new ways of approaching complex issues. That means we will have to learn how to have conversations we’ve never had before. In many cases, we’re going to have to have them with people who think and act quite differently than we do. There will be few, if any, “right” answers, and many possible paths forward. That means we have to try things out, learn together and try again. That’s why learning how to learn in this way is the first behavior change we need to put into place to change other deep-seated, shared patterns of behavior.

To change human behavior at scale, we must first create organizations where people feel safe enough to risk stepping out of their comfort zones and exploring new ways of thinking, working and being. The foundation of this new kind of culture is collectively changing what the organization believes it means to be a good and effective leader, shifting from commanding compliance to cultivating potential. That’s what establishing a coaching culture does.

Coaching as a Culture

Culture is what we do, day-in and day-out. It is the fabric that organizations are made of. The weave of that fabric is created by the shared beliefs that people hold about how things work — and what it means to be successful —within an organization. That’s because our beliefs are what inform and drive our actions, and few beliefs shape organizational culture more profoundly than what it means to be a good and effective leader. Changing that belief can change the very fabric of the culture. That’s what happens when “in the moment” coaching is adopted as the predominant leadership style in an organization.

Cylient defines coaching as the translation of insight into meaningful action to realize potential. Insight is the engine that drives the transformational power of coaching. Consider the rush of positive energy you feel when you have an “aha!” experience. That feeling propels you to explore ideas, try new things and, as a result, embrace new behaviors. This engine only works when the insights that are ignited help people in ways that are meaningful to them. Remember, that is why people choose to change.

This kind of insight-based coaching can be integrated into any conversation with anyone, at any time, to foster learning, create connections and inspire people to think in new ways. It works everywhere and ignites insights and learning wherever it is used. When teams take a coaching approach to meetings, they can authentically share what is really going on and resolve issues together in real time. When peers take a coaching approach to disagreements, they can appreciate each other’s perspectives and find common ground. When insight-based coaching is widely practiced as a leadership and communication style, people learn with and from each other, in the moment. That’s the kind of learning that enables organizations to creatively respond to change in real time.

Coaching-based leaders believe it’s their responsibility to get the flywheel of learning-how-to-learn moving in their organizations by using “in the moment” coaching to support people to bring the best they have to offer to everything that they do. When leaders believe they will be valued and rewarded for taking a coaching approach to leadership, the culture evolves to one where people feel safe, seen and supported to realize their potential.

Complexity has become a way of life, so the ability to change ourselves and our systems as a fluid process needs to become our way of life, too. That’s what coaching cultures can deliver: The ability to continuously evolve how people and systems respond to, and with, our ever-changing world. When “in the moment” coaching is embedded as part of a culture, it enables organizations to tap into the most powerful and plentiful energy available to them — human potential. This creative energy fuels learning of every kind, burning through the dross, and turning complexity into opportunity.