Tag Archives: coaching employees

The Praise Sandwich

I recently read a blog post noting that a recent study showed that the so-called “praise sandwich” performance management technique does not work.  (The praise sandwich is when you want to serve up some criticism but precede it and follow it with praise.)  Why? Because many employees won’t hear the criticism, but will hear only the praise.

That really struck me because if I were served a praise sandwich, I would hear only the criticism!

Be that as it may, I decided to look into the praise sandwich and found that it is quite a controversial issue.  At least in the employee management blogosphere.  Who knew?

First, a little more on how it works.  You want to tell an employee that her written work is sloppy: typos, poor grammar, disorganization.  So you go in and say something along the lines of, “ I really appreciate your willingness to dive in and get done what needs to be done in our department.  One area that could use some improvement, however, is your reports, which need some work. [more details].  Otherwise, I again want to tell you that you are a really valuable member of our team.”

What’s wrong – or right – with this approach? Here are some pros and cons.

Cons (in addition to the one noted above):

(1)   It’s dishonest and the employee sees right through it.

(2)   It’s disrespectful and manipulative because you are controlling the employee instead of being transparent;

(3)   The employee is more uncomfortable rather than less because they always know the boom is sure to follow;

(4)   It devalues the positive feedback because it’s not genuine and is just being used to soften the negative.

(5)   If the praise is more meaty than the criticism (which an uncomfortable manager might do), the criticism is lost in the shuffle.

And now the Pros:

(1)   If the praise is relevant and genuine, it allows the employee to save face and retain their self-esteem.

(2)   It immediately addresses the employee’s unspoken anxiety: “Am I about to be fired?”

(3)   There usually is something positive to say that’s relevant and it’s right to acknowledge it.

(4)   Focusing on the positive is a better way to help employees change their behaviors.

(5)   An open-faced sandwich is best: Praise – Criticism – Helpful Advice.

Ultimately, of course, the best approach will depend on the circumstances, the employee, and past events.  Whichever way you go, it requires honesty, helpfulness, and a positive attitude on the part of the manager dishing the feedback.

What are your thoughts on the “praise sandwich”?  ~Amy Stephson

Improving One-on-One’s with Direct Reports

Many managers and supervisors either don’t have one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, frequently cancel those they do schedule, or fail to prepare for those they have.  To these managers, one-on-ones seem unnecessary and a waste of scarce time.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Regular, focused meetings with subordinates are a key way to help ensure that your team is productive and happy.  Done right, they also help with employee engagement and retention.

It is not necessary to have one-on-ones every week (though with new reports, this is recommended), but it is best to have them at least every other week.  A standing agenda along the following lines is helpful:

  1. Update on action items/commitments from last time
  2. What is going well?
  3. What are the obstacles and how can I (the manager) help?
  4. Ongoing performance feedback, pluses and minuses, if and as needed
  5. Action items going forward

One or more times a year, it’s a good idea to enlarge the scope of the meeting and and cover the following:

  1. Where is the organization going?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. What are you and your team doing well? What are you proud of?
  4. What are your suggestions for improvements for the future (for the organization, for your team, for yourself)?
  5. How can I (the manager) help?
  6. What suggestions for improvement do you have for me (the manager)?

Other tips for having good one-on-one meetings with direct reports are:

1. Schedule them out for 6-12 months for about an hour each. Don’t wait for them to happen, because they won’t.

2. Don’t cancel, reschedule.  If you’re always canceling them, you’re sending the message they aren’t important.

3. Shut the door, don’t answer phones or emails, turn cell phones off, and give 100% attention.

4.  View the meeting as a coaching conversation primarily driven by the direct report.  The manager should ask questions, listen, and provide guidance if needed, but not dominate the conversation.

5. Don’t accumulate a to-do list for each employee, and then use the meeting to unload your list. Don’t overload the employee with action items.

6. Save some time to just talk. It’s OK to spend a few moments just asking what’s new, how’s life, how’s the family, etc….

7. Always try to end on a positive note – let the employee know how well they are doing (if it’s genuine) and how much you appreciate their efforts. If the meeting was a difficult one, you can try to comment positively on how things are going to improve moving forward.

Anything else you would add about successful one-on-ones?  ~Amy Stephson

The Five Whys … or the Five Whats?

 A famous information gathering method developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used at Toyota Motors is The Five Whys.  It is a question asking technique that seeks to determine the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question “Why” as each answer is given to the previous question. 

In the HR setting, this technique can be very helpful.  For example: an employee is frequently tardy.  The Q&A might go like this:

Q1:  Why are you tardy 2-3 times per week? A1:  My car always acts up.

Q2: Why does your car act up? A2:  Because it’s very old and I don’t keep up with regular maintenance.

Q3:  Why don’t you keep up with regular maintenance?  A3:  I’m not sure where to take the car. I live out in the country.

Q4:  Why don’t you do some research to find a good mechanic?  A4:  I’m not sure I really could afford a good mechanic.

Q5:  Why can’t you afford a mechanic?  A5:  My wife is very ill and we are spending all our discretionary funds on her medical care.

At this point, you have come to the heart of the problem (perhaps) and can decide where to go from there.  The number five is not a magic number: three questions may be sufficient and six or seven may be needed.  In addition, there may be multiple “root causes” for a particular problem so you may need to branch out and pursue different Q & A strings.  The principle is that by asking why repeatedly, you are more likely to get to the real cause of a problem. 

As an investigator and coach, asking questions is my business.  So the Five Whys is a very appealing technique.  However, in my experience, one often has to be more diplomatic and subtle when asking questions  and therefore use of a Why-Why-Why approach can backfire.  In fact, the word “Why” in and of itself can be a problem because it tends to make people defensive. 

 So where does this leave the Five Whys?  It’s still a great technique so long as you realize that the questions may need to be worded differently.  So in the above example, instead of repeatedly saying Why? you can use phrases such as “You are tardy 2-3 times a week. What is going on?”  “Do you know what your neighbors do about their cars?”  And so on. A judiciously used “why” now and again may be fine, but you don’t want it to be a battering ram.

In short, one can drill down in a nonthreatening way and still get to the root causes of a problem.  Asking “why” in an automotive factory may be just fine, but in the HR settings, use of other types of questions, partucularly those beginning with the word “what” may be more appropriate and productive. 

 What do you think?  ~Amy Stephson

Rx for Workplace Victims

Recently, I read an online Bloomberg/Businessweek article entitled, “Three Types of People to Fire Immediately” by G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón.   The tagline was, “Want a more innovative company? Get rid of these folks. Today.”  It also quoted an unnamed but successful CEO: I wanted a happy culture. So I fired all the unhappy people.”

The three types of employees discussed were the victims, the nonbelievers, and the know-it-alls.

The article was a bit of a fantasy, as anyone in HR or employment law knows, since it’s not that easy to fire people. However, it got me thinking about one category: the victims (which the article did say to handle with care because they tend to sue). They are legion and they can thoroughly poison a workplace. As the article defined them: “Victims are people who see problems as occasions for persecution rather than challenges to overcome.”

So what’s an employer (or coworker) to do about the victims among us? First, it helps to identify them as such. Two caveats, however: (1) you want to make sure that they are not in fact a victim of discrimination, harassment or other illegal workplace behavior; and (2) you don’t want to get into any psychological issues the person may have: this is inappropriate and opens employers up to disability discrimination claims.

Once the employee is identified as being a “victim,” the next step is to try to refocus their thinking. Victims’ lives revolve around problems: identifying them, being upset and anxious about them, and attempting to resolve them. This is a deadly and unhappy cycle because even if one problem is solved, another one won’t be far behind.

Your job as supervisor or coworker is to try to get the victim to develop a larger work-related intention, goal, or desired outcome that energizes them. Maybe it’s learning a new skill or reorganizing a process; maybe it’s something larger and more personal; maybe it’s multiple goals.  The idea is it’s something proactive, not reactive.

The next step is to get the employee to figure out how to approach that goal and to focus on reaching it, through baby steps if necessary. Problems will still arise, of course, but if the employee can focus on being a creator who is moving, however slowly, in a positive direction, that is a far different mindset than that of the victim.

A more detailed version of this shift from victim to creator, as well as a discussion of the Dreaded Drama Triangle (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer) can be found in David Emerald’s book, “The Power of TED*.”  TED stands for “The Empowerment Dynamic,” and while the book was not my cup of tea as a read, it has many valuable insights and practical applications. David is a local guy so if you’re interested, you can attend his workshops or hear him speak.

What other approaches have you taken to employees stuck in the victim mode? ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!” The Shattering Conclusion

My two previous posts discussed how to help employees who complain about interpersonal problems with their co-workers, addressing both some general principles and the GROW approach to coaching.  This week, I conclude with a discussion of some of the challenges you are likely to face when coaching employees in this type of situation.

Challenge One:  The employee will want you to solve the problem for them.  The essence of coaching, however, is that the client (or “coachee”) has to own and at least attempt to resolve the problem himself or herself.  Feel free to tell the employee this — most will understand the principle, however reluctantly.  In addition, as noted in Part 2 of this series, when you work with the employee to set goals, be sure that they are something that the employee him or herself can accomplish.

Challenge Two: You will ask the employee a coaching question and get a blank stare in return. There’s an art to asking a good question — check out an earlier post of mine for some tips.  Even the best questions, however, often result in a blank stare, or “I don’t know.”  You’ll be tempted to leap in with  your own hard-earned wisdom. Don’t. Instead, first try to let silence do the work for you.  If the pause gets too long, you can then try to get the employee’s analytical juices going using prompts such as, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” or  “How did you feel when I asked you that question?” 

Challenge Three.  The employee will remain emotional and want to be vindicated.  It’s important to acknowledge an employee’s feelings. At some point, however, you’ll want to tell the employee that he or she needs to approach the problem from a strategic and problem-solving standpoint, not an emotional one.  You can tell the employee that if there is wrongdoing on the part of co-workers, you will address it, but you want to emphasize that often interpersonal problems are a result of differing perceptions and miscommunication, not intentional wrongdoing. 

Challenge Four: The employee continues to use the H-word. By this we mean, of course, the word “harassment.” As in, “He keeps harassing me no matter what I do.”  Here you can try a couple of things.  You can explain that the term “harassment” has a specific legal meaning not applicable to the situation (assuming it’s not) and is not helpful in solving the problem because it is an “emotion” word.  You can also tell the employee that the word “harassment” is vague and he or she needs to describe what’s going on with much more specificity if the problem is going to be effectively addressed.

Challenge Five: The employee tries to avoid agreeing to specific action steps. Here you’ll just have to get pushy and help the employee come up with specific steps that will advance his or her goals and that are within his or her control.  You’ll also want to use the motivational technique that’s part of the GROW method (On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it you will do this … ?)   

These are just a few of the challenges that come to mind — coaching is not easy. But as I noted in my first post, it’s well worth the investment of time and effort.  Have you had challenging coaching experiences? Do share them!

Happy Holidays to All. We’ll be back after the New Year.  ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!” Part 2

Last week, I discussed some general principles to consider when faced with employees who complain that co-workers are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them.  This week, I want to set out a coaching approach to try if you’ve decided that coaching the complainant could be useful. 

It’s called the GROW model, which stands for: Goal – Reality – Options – Will.  Its origin is somewhat unclear and it’s been around for years.  Following is a very brief outline of how it works.

Goal.  The first thing you want to do with the employee is set a goal or goals for the coaching. When asked, the employee likely will say something such as, “I want my co-workers to be more friendly to me.”  This is not a useful goal — it’s overbroad and doesn’t focus on what the employee himself or herself can accomplish.  A better goal might be, e.g., “I want to improve my interactions with my co-workers through changing my own behaviors toward them.” (Note: it might take a lot of coaching just to get to a goal like this!)

Reality.  This is where you explore the facts with the employee. The goal is to help the employee really understand what is going on — and what is not going on. You’ll need to get some of the “story” but you don’t want to get bogged down in a lengthy account of every detail or you’ll be there all day. If you’re getting too much story, feel free to gently interrupt and ask, “So what is the bottom line?”

Options. This is where you work with the employee to come up with some possible action steps.  One technique to get the ball rolling is to say, “Let’s brainstorm. You start.”  As options come up, you work with the employee to get them to be specific and doable.

Will.  This is where you turn the best options into concrete action steps that the employee is motivated to take. You ask the employee which option(s) they prefer and when they’re going to start. One technique to help with motivation is to ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how likely is it that you will do this and do it within the time frame you’ve set?”  If the number is low, you say, “How could we turn that 5 into an 8? Are there any obstacles we should address to make sure this gets done?”

Voila — you’ve done GROW! Of course it never goes this smoothly, but it’s a helpful framework. After the meeting, either you or the employee should memorialize the action steps and set another meeting.  In a future post I’ll discuss some of the challenges that come with this coaching approach.

Have you tried coaching this type of complaint? How did it go?  ~Amy Stephson

Coaching Employees: Say What?

Managers are often told to “coach” their employees for better performance or behavior.  And they do.  Many do it well, but others don’t really know how to coach someone.  Why should they? It’s a skill and like any other, it must be learned. 

Most managers and supervisors, however, do not have the time or inclination to do what it takes to fully develop their coaching skills. (After many years as a lawyer, it still took me a year and a half of course work and 100 hours of coaching practice to become a certified professional coach!)  So here’s a shortcut: a very brief lesson in how to listen and ask questions like a coach.  

Coaching consists primarily of listening intently to what’s said (and unsaid) and asking questions.  Several types of questions are most effective:

(1) Open-ended as opposed to yes-no questions

(2) Questions that begin with “What….?” E.g.,

  • What does success mean to you?
  • What is stopping you from doing x?
  • What are your choices?
  • What would energize you?
  • What’s another way to look at that?
  • What do you need in order to accomplish x?

 (3) Questions that reflect back what the employee said, e.g.,

  • You use the word “unfair.”  What does that mean to you?
  • I hear you saying “you feel best when …..”  Tell me more about that. 

How do these questions transform a conversation?  They show respect for the employee because you’re engaging in a real exchange, not lecturing or giving directives. They require the employee to think and not just react or complain.  And they open up both of your minds to different ways to see and address a problem. 

Of course, you also need to effectively close the conversation. Again, coaching questions can help you do this: What are you going to do or not do? When are you going to do it? How can I help?  The answers to these questions can be memorialized in an email if appropriate. Voila, you’ve created expectations!

Will this magically solve all problems?  No.  Human beings are complex, as are the situations they create.  Will it help?  Yes.  Try it and let us know how it works.  And I’ll provide some further tips in future posts. ~AS