Tag Archives: Coaching

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

Just Say NOW

What’s the number one mistake employers make regarding problem employees?  They do nothing, and hope it will go away. 

The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t go away by itself.  The poor behaviors or performance continue, or get worse.  Co-workers become angry and demoralized.  Management looks weak.  Actions are taken that just compound the problem, e.g., fearful of an employee’s anger, management gives the employee an assignment that everyone knows will end badly. 

From a coaching perspective, management needs to answer several questions to get to a place of action.  First, what are the barriers to taking action?  Second, what can be done to overcome those barriers?  And third, what is the proper framework for taking action once the decision to go forward has been made?  The third question is one for HR or an employment attorney to answer.  The former are discussed below. 

What stops managers from doing what they know needs to be done – often for a very long time?  Some of the reasons include: lack of support from higher up management, uneasiness with confrontation, fear of doing something illegal, sympathy for the problem employee, lack of time, or lack of knowledge on how to do it.  All decent reasons.  But ultimately, not good enough.  And when the inevitable meltdown or explosion comes, these excuses will sound pretty lame.

So what can be done to overcome these barriers?  The exact steps will depend on the specific situation, but certain generic advice is possible:

  1. Decide to make the time to address the problem.  In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey has a wonderful chapter on time management in which he writes that a common mistake many people make is they don’t make time for tasks that are important but not urgent.  Dealing with a difficult employee is a classic example of this.  So the first step is to realize that this is an important part of your job.
  2. Sit down and analyze exactly what the problem is, what has been done about it to date, what has led to inaction in the past, and what might be a good approach.
  3. Get the support you need from upper management and HR.  A supervisor or manager cannot and should not take on something like this without guidance and support. 

And finally, realize that it takes courage and leadership to take on certain unpleasant tasks.  Take a deep breath, tell yourself you have those qualities, and just say now.  It may not be easy, but it’s an opportunity for strength and growth.  ~AS

Up Delegating: Two Views

I first heard the term “up-delegating” when a manager in an investigation told me that the complainant was skilled at up-delegating her work to the manager.  The witness was using the term in its negative sense.  It turns out that up-delegating (or delegating up) can be a necessary and positive step as well.

Up-delegating occurs when an employee delegates or tries to delegate work to someone higher in the organization, typically the employee’s boss.  It’s a concept that’s worth understanding in both senses.

The good.  So when might up-delegating be appropriate?  Typically, it’s a good thing when the delegating employee is asking the boss to help with something that the employee cannot do without the boss’s help.

One example is when an employee is given responsibility for a project but lacks authority over some of the people assigned to work on the project.  Such a situation can be a recipe for failure if some of the assigned team members are uncooperative.  In this situation, the project leader would be wise to ask someone sufficiently high up to explicitly empower him or her with the needed additional authority.  If this doesn’t work, the project leader could ask this person to communicate directly with the relevant team members about certain matters or work assignments.

The bad.  Up-delegating is not appropriate when an employee is trying to get his or her boss to do the employee’s work.  Typically, this occurs when the employee is afraid to take risks, lacks confidence, fears criticism, or lacks resources.  Often the manager is part of the problem by allowing the up-delegation. The manager may like being needed, be avoiding his or her own work, or lack faith in the subordinate’s ability to do the task correctly.  The result, however, is that the manager doesn’t get his or her own work done and the employee continues to have the same problems that led to up-delegating in the first place.

To address this problem, the manager first needs to name it.  Then two people need coaching: the employee and the manager.  The manager needs to ask him or herself: “What do I do (or not do) that encourages my staff to up-delegate?”  The manager should then make the appropriate changes in his or her approach.  The manager also needs to ask the employee: “What is stopping you from doing this yourself?”  Follow up questions may include: “How can I help you do this on your own?” and “This seems to be a pattern. What can we do to help you do these tasks on your own?”

Have you had any good or bad experiences with up-delegating?  ~AS

Negative Sheila

A while ago I was brought in to work with a team that was having difficulties.  One of the big issues was one person – let’s call her Sheila.  When I spoke to each team member individually I was told that Sheila is good at the technical parts of her job, but does not work well with others.  She won’t help out (“too busy”) and shuts down any new ideas (“we’ve tried it before, it won’t work…”) and always seems negative.  People told me they’d tried ignoring Sheila (she demanded to be noticed), being extra nice to her (it didn’t change her behavior) and even asking her what her problem is (“I don’t have one.”)

It turns out that Sheila, like the rest of us, does things she thinks are beneficial.  When’s the last time someone told you they were being intentionally disruptive, wanted to destroy the team, or didn’t want to get the work done well?  Most people are doing the best they can, and are doing what they believe is the best thing.

Do you remember when you were little and your mom told you to put yourself in your friend’s shoes when the two of you had a fight?  That applies to adults, too. To understand Sheila, we need to put ourselves in her shoes.  What’s important to her?  What does she want? What are her values?  What does she like? Once we have tentative answers to these questions we can then give her a reason, in line with what’s important to her, to work positively with the team.  Is control important to her? Ask her to be in charge of something.  Is information the key? Ask her to do some research that will further the team’s work.  I suggested her colleagues answer this question: What’s in it for Sheila to be more positive and cooperative? When they did, and acted accordingly, Sheila became a more positive, cooperative team member. 

Have you worked effectively with someone like Sheila?  Tell us how you did it!  ~ DS

Reflections of a Workplace Investigator

 A gay male employee complains: My co-worker and her husband lunch together every day, but it’s discriminatory that she doesn’t want me to discuss my same sex partner. The co-worker says: I’m a Christian and homosexuality is against my religion. I’m happy to interact with my gay co-worker, but don’t want to have to hear about his partner.

An African-American employee complains: My co-workers laugh and talk about me in their native language. This is harassment. The co-workers reply: When we use our language, we’re not talking about her; we’re just chatting and only do it when no one else is around. Our employer’s policy allows us to speak in our language and it would be discriminatory to stop us.

These are just two of the many scenarios in the life of a workplace investigator. Most are more mundane: Managers have terrible communication skills or play favorites. Poor performers blame bias rather than their job performance. Managers have anger problems. Perceptually challenged employees create havoc. People hate their jobs, but can’t find another that pays as well, so make trouble.

And now a new source of conflict is creating challenges in the workplace: generational diversity. The 62-79 year-old “Matures” (as consultant Karyl K. Innis calls them) have very different attitudes toward work than the 43-66 year-old Boomers, who in turn have different attitudes than the 28–42 year-old “Gen X’ers” or the under-28 “Gen Y’s.”

Is there an underlying reason for all this? Much of it is just human nature: people are complex, see the world through their own perceptual lens, have competing interests, have personality conflicts, lack the necessary competencies, offend and get offended. We live in a country where personal boundaries are often blurred, many have a sense of entitlement or victimhood, and television shows workplaces where there’s more talk of sex than work.

There’s another reason why employers end up having to hire investigators: They fail to prevent conflict through policies, training, and coaching. And then, when conflicts do arise, they fail to manage them in a timely manner. Proactively dealing with conflict may seem like a distraction, but it’s an essential part of risk management and running a productive, efficient business.  ~AS