By Kevin D. Wilde

February 15, 2023

Question:  Who is responsible for you living and leading in your “Learning Zone?”

The first part of the definition of a highly coachable leader is someone with a mindset that values self-improvement and operates consistently in their learning zone.  One research study that analyzed the level of coachability and confidence found a curvilinear relationship. In other words, either extreme on the confidence scale produced low coachability. 

  1. The low-confidence leaders were less coachable – the ‘I can’t” zone.  This is where the “faulty assumption” of the superhuman stance lives – the fear that others would doubt your abilities if you actively sought feedback and coaching.
  2. On the opposite extreme of the confidence spectrum is the very, very confident leaders who are equally less coachable – living in the ‘I don’t care’ zone.  Among other things, the “false finish line” belief lives here – the mindset that ‘I’ve arrived” and I stay busy doing with little time for learning.

The ‘sweet spot’ for high coachability was the middle of the confidence scale:  enough confidence to learn and enough humility to be curious. The balance is the optimal ‘learning zone.’

My Experience in the Learning Zone

Candidly, I find myself operating in either zone more than I care to admit.  At times, I’ve found myself pretending to know, dancing around questions with a false air of authority and hoping no one would notice. I recall one meeting with senior leaders when I should have been more confident to be curious, ask questions and be open for exploration. Instead, I quickly agreed to launch a series of training programs in the company that no one really needed, but I wanted to impress top management that I had a firm handle on things and could drive change.  

While the resulting experience of driving unnecessary training didn’t add to my confidence, there were times when I missed signals from others because I thought I knew more than them or was moving so fast I didn’t allow room for opinions or feedback.  One bad habit I had was pushing more work onto my team – often because of over-committing in those executive encounters – and not being sensitive to understanding the full weight of their current projects.  Any signals of stress I wrote off as “resistance to change” or “unwillingness to stretch” as they couldn’t see the big picture as I did. Over time, I learned to slow down, listen and learn the real picture of what was going on. Simply put, I did a better job managing myself into my learning zone.

From time to time we fall into the extremes of “I Can’t” or “I Don’t Care” which limits our coachability and may lead to blind spots and other negative consequences.  I ask participants in my workshops and coaching to step back and consider what triggers put them out of their optimal coaching zone and into the extremes of too little or too much confidence.  Comments pushing people to the “I Can’t Zone” include:

“I’m anxious, self-critical and fear failing if I do anything. The imposter syndrome has taking over my thinking.”

“I’m feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, tired, or just ‘check out’.”

“I see what surrounds me as threatening, overly competitive and judgmental … overall a lack of trust.”

Reported triggers and thinking in the “I Don’t Care” Zone include:

“Frankly bored with routine and want to disengage with any discussion and just get on with the work.”

“I don’t see those around me as qualified in expertise, experience or level to learn from them.”

“Any feedback or improvement message is poorly delivered, condescending, irrelevant, unclear or uncaring.” 

Pushing Yourself into the Learning Zone

Do any of these comments sound familiar?  This might be a good time to pause and inventory your list of what pushes you out of your learning zone.

Now ask yourself this question:  what are the consequences of staying out of the learning zone? Or another way of asking it, who is responsible for you operating in your optimal learning zone?  

While there are times when it’s smart to play it safe in a threatening setting or assertively drive on, we can overestimate the perceived threats and downplay the risks of not finding a way to shift into the right balance of confidence and coachability.  I recently trained over 200 retail leaders and asked them to estimate the percentage of time they operated in their coachable learning zone in the past month. How would you respond to that question?  For these leaders,  most admitted to being in the learning zone about a quarter of the time as the majority of their days were spent working by default on either side of the confidence+coachability scale. The follow-up question I asked was if 25% was good enough to help them achieve their goals and be the best version of the leader they wanted to be this year.  All volunteered they should be higher, but worried about how.  The coaching suggestion I offered – and offer you – is to not commit to a total transformation but identify how to be 10% better next month.

The catalyst for 10% better starts with getting clear on what puts you in your coachable learning zone and then finding simple ways and promising opportunities to experiment yourself into the zone.  So what puts you in your learning zone?  Often times I hear:

“I’m interested in the topic and advice. It’s relevant to me and I can see how it can help me. I recognize a gap that I can address.”

“I recall other times where feedback has helped me and have had positive experiences before.”

“I’m feeling comfortable to be open and curious.”

Where is Your Learning Zone?

That last comment about comfort brings up an important point.  Settings and relationships where psychological safety exists are great enablers. But coachable leaders recognize that sometimes the most powerful personal learning is right on the edge of our comfort zone.  Can you identify a few of those stretching, lessons-learned moments in your life that causes you to stretch and consider a new perspective?  You can miss those valuable moments – the unexpected lesson – by playing it too safe.

Coachable leaders know that the real safe operating zone is in learning – being confident enough to step up, risk asking and listening to how to get better and curious and humble enough to know they are ‘works in progress’ and not a finished product.  There is always something new to learn and coachable leaders put themselves in that ‘sweet spot’ zone.  How can you move out of the extremes and 10% more in your own ‘sweet spot’ as a coachable leader today?