Recently, I met with a manager about how to support an employee who was struggling in a new role. “He needs so much guidance,” the manager told me, “but he has so much on his plate right now that the last thing I want to do is add any more development.”
Although the manager was certainly right about this being a less than ideal time for a formal training program, such periods of change and disruption often provide the greatest opportunities for coaching employees. Instead of abandoning development, I recommended the manager stay extra close to this employee and take every opportunity to coach and provide supportive feedback. I knew this would provide the best chance for success, and would in fact be more valuable to him than any training program we could offer.
What Does it Mean to Coach Employees?
At its essence, employee coaching is the act of helping people to solve their own problems rather than telling them what to do. This is important because it allows employees to develop their own critical thinking skills. Ultimately, it’s also the best way for leaders to develop their pipeline. In their book, The Extraordinary Coach, John Zenger and Kathleen Stinett demonstrate that leaders who are strong coaches significantly increase the effort their employees put in, and dramatically decrease the likelihood their employees will quit.
At Bright Horizons we teach managers that coaching is an important addition to their manager toolkit. We use the GROW model (What’s the Goal of this conversation? What’s the Reality of what is going on? What are our Options? What are our next steps?) that also incorporates open ended, powerful questions. For many managers, however, even 30-minute employee coaching sessions can be an onus, and we balk at the required commitment. Fortunately, however there are many ways coaching skills can be deployed seamlessly into your daily employee interactions.
Use Powerful Questions
Encourage employees to develop their thinking. Questions should be forward-looking as well as short and open ended. Some of my favorites include: “What is working well?” “What’s next?” “What about this matters?” ”What else should be explored?”
Encourage Employees to Explore Options
When employees come to you for advice, resist telling them what to do. Instead, ask them to come up with options. Allow time for them to describe options, and only then ask them if they would like to hear thoughts from you. Let them make the final choice about what to do. When employees choose the response, they are much more committed to it.
Listen to Your Employees
Make sure you engage in truly understanding where the person is coming from. Listen for and be curious about the employee’s repeated words, values, and motivations. Then reflect this back with phrases such as, “It sounds like this is a top priority for you right now,“ or “I am hearing some frustration about this issue.” This typically opens up the conversation for rich dialogue and moves you forward to a positive resolution more quickly.
Be Aware of Employees Expecting Answers
This is a sign that you are using a style that has created a dependent relationship between the two of you. This can happen particularly at times when you yourself are stressed and under time-pressure. Take this as a warning that you need to transition to a less directive style, and remind yourself that employees typically can and do have the answers themselves. Not only will this help them, but it will ultimately take the stress off you too.
Why Employee Coaching Matters
Employee coaching works because when an individual is committed to the solution, the energy and focus they deploy to make it happen outweighs even the downside of a less than ideal answer. But if you are a leader who is new to coaching, it can feel like writing with your opposite hand. In other words, you may understand the value, but if you’ve been conditioned to see yourself as the all-knowing problem solver, it’s excruciatingly hard to let your employees solve on their own. But once you do start practicing these skills, they become more natural, and in my experience, something employees appreciate and start to request.
Recently one of my employees sent me an email request for a decision; without thinking about it, I responded with two provocative questions instead of the answer. “You just coached me via email!” she responded. “Thank you.”