Tag Archives: Coaching

Setting Expectations: Moving Past Barriers  

Every manager and supervisor knows that a key part of performance management is setting expectations for subordinates. As they also know, this is often easier said than done.

What gets in the way of this necessary task? First, the manager or supervisor may not feel comfortable being so directive. They need to get over this. It’s their job. If some introductory talking points will help, here are a few ideas:

  • “Sue, I want to sit down and be sure we’re on the same page about your job duties. Let’s meet on Thursday and discuss them.
  • “Joe, I think things will go much smoother for both of us if we sit down and get clear on your job duties and how I want you to do certain tasks.
  • “Chris, I’m sensing that things are not going smoothly for you in the workgroup. Let’s meet and see how we can make things better. [Regarding relationship or behavior issues.]

 Second, many managers and supervisors don’t really know what an effective expectation looks like. The general rule when creating expectations is that they should be S.M.A.R.T:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-oriented/Relevant
  • Time-bound

Third, some expectations are easier to write than others. If you’re discussing a time and attendance problem or specific aspects of job performance, it’s pretty straightforward. But setting expectations for behavior or more complex problems can be harder:

  • It does not help, for example, to just tell an employee that her “attitude” needs to change. More helpful: “Employee needs to improve her attitude. Specifically, she needs to stop rolling her eyes and sighing loudly when she disagrees with her supervisor or others, to stop using profanity when she is frustrated, and to only criticize others, if necessary, in private and not in front of others.”
  • Similarly, it does not help to just tell an employee that he needs to improve his “communication skills.” What exactly does that mean? What does it look like? More helpful: “Employee needs to improve his communication skills. More specifically, he needs to initiate conversations with colleagues and managers, answer questions when asked, maintain appropriate eye contact, speak clearly, and not walk away in the middle of conversations.”
  • Poor writing is another tough one, especially since most managers and supervisors are not skilled at identifying what’s wrong with an employee’s writing; all they know is it’s bad. It may be necessary in these cases to consult with someone who can analyze the writing errors so that you can set expectations that address them. E.g., “Your written reports need to be easier for others to read. A few tips: Use shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences. Avoid excessive underlining and use of capital letters for emphasis. Avoid unnecessary history and other details. Use bullet points to make important information clear and succinct.”

Next, managers and supervisors may fear that the meeting with the employee to discuss the expectations will be difficult and uncomfortable. It may be. But if the manager takes an approach that is calm, friendly, and non-accusatory — but firm — that is less likely to happen. It is also helpful for the manager to approach the meeting as a coach (explained here), not a disciplinarian.

Finally, some managers and supervisors are hesitant to write things down — it seems too authoritarian or they may not be great writers themselves. The bottom line, however, is that the expectations need to be documented in a writing that is given to the employee at the meeting or sent via email afterward. If it’s not a performance review or formal memo situation, setting out the expectations in a few clear bullet points is sufficient. Just be sure to date it.

Any other thoughts regarding expectations?  ~Amy Stephson


Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Perhaps my favorite confidence-building saying is, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” What does this mean? It does not mean, “Pretend to have knowledge you don’t have,” or “Lie to your supervisor about what you’ve accomplished.” It’s more of an attitude: “I lack expertise in this area but I am going to working on developing it and in the meantime behave in a confident manner.”

 More deeply, it means you feel some confidence in yourself even though you are far from an expert in whatever it is, knowing that if you apply yourself and stick with it, you will improve and eventually “make it.” 

I myself have used the saying many times, particularly when I first went into private practice on my own. And later when I did training on conducting investigations at a time when I had done only a few of them myself. (I did a lot of research….)

 How is this relevant to the workplace? It is a good tool for employees to use for personal confidence-building – and for supervisors to use when coaching employees who lack confidence or who are starting something new and unfamiliar. It gives employees permission to be in a learning mode and lowers their personal or professional barriers to learning.

It also encourages employees to solve problems and take risks. Implicit in this saying is the notion, “just because I haven’t done something doesn’t mean I can’t figure out how to do it.” Also implicit: “And in the meantime, I will not whine or freak out, but will remain calm and professional.”

 What else does “Fake it ‘til you make it” say to you? ~Amy Stephson

Finding the Right Bait

In her post last week, Daphne wrote about using the right bait — self interest — to motivate recalcitrant employees who just won’t seem to shape up.  Much as managers and supervisors wish they could say, “Because I said so!” that’s not the reality of the modern workplace (if it ever was). 

The trick is determining the appropriate bait. This is where coaching questions can be very helpful.  First, however, the manager wants to set the stage: after all, the task at hand is actually not optional.  So the manager wants to start with something like: “We’ve talked about your [extended breaks … chatting too much with co-workers … spending too much time on personal cell phone calls … not proofreading your work … ] several times and I am not seeing any changes.  I don’t want to have to escalate this.”

Having set the stage, the manager can now ask questions that hopefully will surface the bait and a plan:

  • What is going on?
  • So what is getting in the way of your doing [x]?
  • What are you saying when you don’t do [x]?
  • What would help you do [x]?
  • What would energize you in your job generally?

Other “what” questions can also work. The trick is to get the employee, not you, talking. And to come up with an enforceable action plan from there.  And to enforce it.

Any other ideas on how to find the right bait? ~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

“She’s Mean to Me!”

I recently taught a class to supervisors on improving employee behaviors and performance through coaching. Part of the class consisted of practice coaching sessions. I was a little surprised at the topic the class suggested for these sessions: coaching  employees who complain that others are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them from the team.

I shouldn’t have been. Everyone who does HR related work recognizes that American workplaces are not that different from American high schools (junior highs?) in the way many employees interact with each other. There are cliques, popular and unpopular kids, teacher’s pets (or perceived favorites), and so on. These kinds of problems hurt productivity and drive management crazy. They also can lead to bullying and harassment complaints.

So what’s a supervisor or manager to do? First, you want to determine if it’s potentially a harassment complaint, i.e., the co-workers’ behaviors are allegedly motivated the complainant’s race, gender, religion, etc. Do not hesitate to just ask, “Why do you think X is doing that to you? Do you think it’s because of your [protected class status]? What makes you think that?” If it seems like it may be a harassment complaint, follow your policy and procedures.

Second, if you think there is actual bullying going on, you may need to step in and also investigate.  Coaching the target may or may not be an appropriate response. 

If you’re pretty sure it’s not a harassment complaint or real bullying, you can then move into coaching mode. Working with an employee on this type of issue can be very challenging, but it helps to keep a few basic supervisory goals and methods in mind:

  • First, to the extent possible, you want to help the employee solve the problem himself. You can provide coaching in the background, but it’s better to not intervene unless you decide after further discussion and thought that you need to either talk to the other person, facilitate a conversation between the two (or three, four, or more) parties, or both.
  • Second, you want to help the employee see how she may be contributing to the problem. It almost always takes two, and it’s not “blaming the victim” to explore the conversational “dance” that goes on between the complainant and the others and see where she may be affecting the outcome.
  • Third, you want to help the employee see beyond his interpretation of the other person’s behaviors and explore other possibilities. Did the other person really glare at the employee or was she having a attack of heartburn? “It may not be about you at all” is a helpful concept to explore.
  • Finally, you want to work with the employee to come up with an action plan, even if it’s just baby steps,  to build on what you discussed in the first meeting. You also want to schedule another meeting: at least three meetings total is a good goal.

In future columns, I’ll discuss a more specific coaching framework for this type of complaint as well as some of the challenges.  Coaching may seem too time consuming, but when it works, it’s an investment that is well worth the effort.  ~Amy Stephson

Attention Management

Recently, I was preparing for a management presentation I’m giving next month.  One of the topics is “time management.”  I’ve never taken a time management class myself, and I have to admit that the term fills me with a vague discomfort.  It also evokes images of fat notebook-like organizers filled with lists upon lists of meetings, tasks to do, tasks completed, priorities, calls to make, and so on.

I don’t want to go there. It’s not me and I don’t do it myself so how can I preach it?  Instead I’m going to share a general  coaching approach to time management. You can use it on yourself or when coaching others.

  • First, don’t conceptualize it as time management at all.  We can’t manage time – it’s a force outside our control.  However, we can manage our attention and our priorities.  So think of the issue as “where do I focus my attention” or “how do I manage my priorities.”
  • Second, be intentional.  Think through your roles and tasks, how you want and need to balance them, where you want to direct your attention, and what your destination and goals are.  With intention, you have a framework for making decisions on how to spend the time you have. Without intention or a goal, you end up being only reactive.  Most people are part of a larger organization, so external forces – your job description, the organization’s mission and values, and your leadership’s views will necessarily be part of this process.
  • Third, figure out where your attention is currently going and realign it to better meet your goals and priorities.  You can do this in any number of ways and in greater or lesser detail.  The important thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing so you can make the changes that are necessary.

Of course this sounds easier than it is, but as a macro approach, it works.  You might also want to look into the Stephen Covey “time management matrix,” which is an invaluable tool for focusing your attention on what is important, not just on what is urgent — or seems so.

As for the details, you can work those out yourself. Electronic PDA, paper and pencil, fat leather-bound organizer, post-its, color coding, whatever … it’s your choice. What matters is having a framework.

Let me know if this works for you!  ~Amy Stephson

Top Ten New Supervisor Skills

This began as the top five skills, but it just wasn’t possible, so I’m going for ten.  An interesting discussion on the LinkedIn HR Group listserv recently addressed this as did a speaker at a seminar I attended in August.  There are lots of books out there on this topic, but I’m aiming to keep it short and to the point. We’re talking about folks who have never supervised before, God bless them. 

  1. Understand your new role and maintain boundaries.  You now have some power (or at least your subordinates think you do) and can no longer be one of the gang.  You want to be friendly and empathetic but not get involved in solving personal problems.  You don’t want to go partying and drinking with your subordinates. And so on.
  2. Listen first, then speak, respectfully.
  3. Set clear and measurable expectations.
  4. Learn the fundamentals of delegation, directing and coaching.
  5. Understand the larger system in which you work so you can “manage up” and exercise your “followership” skills.  Your unit does not work in a vacuum — you can help your people only if you understand the universe, including the organizational values, around them.
  6. Develop basic conflict resolution skills.  
  7. Learn how to handle the routine stuff: timecards, leave slips, accident reports, etc.  Read the Employee Handbook, carefully.
  8. Find an experienced manager or supervisor to whom you can go with questions.
  9. Set up a regular but realistic system for meeting with your employees, both as a group and one-on-one.  No one likes a ton of meetings, but it’s absolutely necessary to have some regular meetings.
  10. Figure out how to reward those employees who do well and motivate those who are not engaged.

And what if we had to pick only five central skills?  First, I’d have to eliminate the practical, obvious ones such as learning how to handle the routine stuff, setting up regular meetings, and finding a more experienced person to be a mentor.  My top five then would be numbers 1 – 5 above.  I’d probably also want to figure out a way to squeeze in 6 (maybe by just adding it to #4!).

 What would you pick as the top five?  Did I miss anything?  ~Amy Stephson

A Simple Change: Drop the “Should’s”

Imagine you are an employee whose work is careless and usually late.  How do you respond to each of the following messages from your supervisor?

Supervisor A:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, you should start paying more attention to your work product: it’s full of typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences.  You shouldn’t turn it in to me unless you have proofread it twice. Second, you also need to get it to me on time.  It’s not acceptable to get it to me two days late.  Am I being clear?”

Supervisor B:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, it’s important that you pay more attention to your work product, which tends to have typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences. Second, it’s also important that you get your work to me on time, not two days late.  What can we do to ensure that you are able to meet these expectations?  One suggestion I have is that you proofread your work twice before turning it in.  What else might work?”

Both supervisors are saying the same thing and neither is being inappropriate or abusive.  Yet, most people would far rather get the message from Supervisor B.  Why?  For two main reasons.  Rather than giving directives, Supervisor B is using coaching language , e.g., “What can we do . . .?”  A coaching approach often produces a less defensive employee and better results.  As noted in an earlier post, one component of effective coaching is to ask open ended “what” questions. 

Equally importantly, Supervisor B does not use terms such as “you should” “you have to” or “you need to.”  This is central,  because for better or for worse, these terms are psychologically loaded, often raising feelings of obligation, guilt, and right vs. wrong.  

Think of an obligation and couch it in terms of “I should do X every week” or “I have to do Y regularly.”  Now reframe it using more positive words such as “I want to do X every week” or “It’s important to do Y regularly.”  It can be transformative: instead of feeling like an obligation or burden, it feels like a positive choice. 

In the workplace setting, avoiding use of the word “should” (and its cousins “have to” and “need to”) can be similarly transformative.  When Supervisor B says “it’s important,” he or she is using a neutral word without negative connotations. It has the added benefit of communicating that there is a reason for the request.  It also, in some subtle way, communicates that the supervisor and the employee are a team working on matters of common interest. “It’s important …” is one way to reframe the message; many others work as well. 

Avoiding “should” is a simple change that can bring about significant improvements in workplace communication.  Do you have any other magic bullets ?   ~Amy Stephson

Can People Change?

An ever-interesting  issue that comes up when managing employees is: can people really change?  Employers, of course, generally assume that employees can change and therefore set expectations, create goals, evaluate, develop performance improvement plans, and the like.  In many cases employees can and do change, so these tools are necessary and effective.

What about the employee who doesn’t seem to change? The one who continues – despite supervisory attention – to be tardy, to not finish assignments, to play poorly with others, or to yell at co-workers when stressed?  In many of these cases, change is possible if a few basic principles are understood:

  • Change at the margins is easier than fundamental personality change.  What’s at the margins will depend on the person, but examples are: dressing professionally, getting to meetings on time, following procedures, counting to ten before exploding, etc.  Sometimes small changes can have a huge impact on how the employee is viewed by others and views him or herself.  Small do-able changes should not be sniffed at.
  • Change requires the appropriate carrot and stick to ensure that the employee understands what is expected and is motivated to make the needed change.  Many managers wonder: “Why can’t I just ask my employees to do something and it gets done?  Why do I have to baby them? This is a job!”  The answer: humans are complicated.  Resistance and resentments can arise for a host of reasons.  The manager may come across as a nagging parent or spouse and the employee responds accordingly.  The manager and subordinate may have scripts that they just keep repeating.  The employee may have insecurities or inadequacies that he or she is hiding.  And so on.  The supervisor him or herself often needs to change his or approach to the problem.
  • Adding a positive behavior is often easier than eliminating a negative one.  For example, it may be easier for a bullying supervisor to learn to say hello in the morning to each of his or her subordinates and to bring in donuts once a month than to stop yelling when a hot button is pressed.  By adding these positive behaviors, the entire dynamic may change such that it’s then easier for the supervisor to change the negative behaviors.  If nothing else, these positive “deposits in the bank” may reduce the impact of the negative behaviors. 

In other situations, however, change may not be easy or possible: 

  • Change will be hard if the person is in the wrong job. People succeed in jobs that align with their strengths.  The opposite is also often true.  If an employee is poor at numbers, an accounting or finance related position is rarely going to work.  If they’re basically antisocial, customer service is not a good field for them. In such a situation, the employee may not be able to change sufficiently to meet the demands of the job. 
  • People often cannot change fundamental personality traits .  In these cases, the employer certainly should give the employee the opportunity to make the needed changes – with a focus on behavior and action, not personality.  But at some point, the employer will need to accept the reality that it’s not going to work out and act accordingly.  These situations can be very difficult.
  • Finally, in some cases the employee just doesn’t want to change and sees it as unnecessary. Termination may be the only way to address this type of employee.

Do you have other ideas on helping employees change?   ~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