When we talk about coaching team members, most people have a preconceived notion of what that means.
For some, it might bring up a mental image or memory of a coach along the sidelines screaming loudly and turning a little red from all the excitement. Others might picture a parent silently cheering for them as they get a word right in a spelling bee. And some might not really have a personal experience from which to draw, so they picture a scene from their favorite sports movie.
Regardless of their past experiences, most people struggle to make the leap to great coaching in the workplace because it’s not really like any of these things. While there are similarities, there are also significant differences that must be taken into account in order to have great coaching conversations.
Few things are more likely to guarantee underperformance than unclear expectations. It’s so easy for leadership to lose sight of this in the fast-paced activity of the day-to-day, but assuming the team understands the vision is a recipe for failure. Not only does your team need to know what’s expected of them every day, but when an employee feels their work is connected to the larger vision, they’re more willing to put in their best work. In fact, when employees have this sort of engagement, McKinsey estimates an up to 25% increase in productivity. So be sure you’re asking your team members why they’re doing what they’re doing, and make sure your employees feel connected to the big-picture goals. If they don’t really know why they’re doing it, or if they imply they’re doing it because they’re “supposed to,” then you know to focus your initial coaching efforts on connecting their efforts to the company’s overall goals.
While coaching conversations focused on what people are doing well are incredibly valuable (and, let’s face it, more fun), great coaches know they have to deal head-on with issues as well. Failure to address performance or attitude issues gives tacit approval of those behaviors and leaves your employees feeling that what they’re doing is acceptable based solely on your unwillingness to address it. This situation is, at best, confusing to the team and, at worst, disastrous to morale and productivity. Performance issues must be addressed immediately and not left to linger and spread among the team.
Similarly, great coaches know how to have coaching conversations that deliver less-than-stellar news without causing their team members to lose motivation. Whether that news is that they will be on the “B” team in football, that the promotion is going to someone else this time, or that they won’t be leading the project as they’d hoped, being able to help them through that moment and giving them a new goal to chase is critical. Disappointment is at times inevitable, but by focusing on the future and its opportunities, you can help your team stay on course through tough times.
Truly effective coaching requires that you know your team, including what motivates them, where they struggle, and what their lives look like outside of work. While some people are more reticent to share these parts of themselves with a supervisor, and it’s important to respect their boundaries, how can you truly help and support them if you don’t have any idea what is going on with them? By showing genuine interest in their lives, including learning about their loved ones and their outside interests, you can build a real relationship. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to spend every weekend at team barbecues or hanging at happy hour with team members. It means that you care about the individual and what’s important to them and you show it.
By respecting their privacy as they reveal information, you can build trust over time. Your team needs to feel comfortable keeping you informed of their personal life as critical things come up. It doesn’t mean you need to know what bar they’re going to this weekend, but if they have an outside situation (seriously or chronically sick family member, transportation issue, etc.) that is likely to impact their performance for a time, you want them to feel they can tell you so you can help them and the whole team through the situation. Those conversations are more likely to happen when you have regular talks about what is going on in their lives. Get to know your team and build that trust so that they know you are on their side and they can count on you in tough times.
We’ve all known leaders who’ve put up a front of perfection, thinking that they would win respect if they never showed weakness. And what happens instead is that people see through the façade and don’t trust that person.
It’s critical to be real with your team members and to be willing to share your own learning experiences in coaching conversations. And when you are wrong, admit it, quickly and publicly. Trust comes largely through vulnerability, and when you make it clear you realize you aren’t perfect, your team will be more willing to open up and ask for help when they need it, allowing you to step in and coach them through challenges.
One of the challenges in using the word “coaching” goes back to those childhood memories of coaching. You see, when most of us think of those coaching experiences, it was primarily about the coach talking and us listening. But when you’re coaching team members, doing all the talking is a near guarantee for failure.
If we talk our way through our coaching conversations, we fail to actually understand what the other person is thinking, feeling, and going through. People who don’t feel heard are unlikely to feel connected to the company or to you, and you can’t get to know someone if you’re doing all the talking. Like a good therapist, a great coach will ask open-ended questions, then just let the team member talk while they listen attentively and get to know the person better. We saw this play out firsthand with one of our CEO clients, who figured out what he really wanted out of life and for his business because his coach asked great questions.
As you’re coaching your team, just remember that it’s really all about them. If you find your sessions are more focused on you or the company, take a step back and reevaluate what you’re doing. Make this time about them and what they want to get out of it. Spend time getting to know who they are and what they really need from you. This sort of investment in your team will pay dividends and foster loyalty throughout your team. And if you’re still struggling and need more help, consider working with a coaching organization to help you and your team work together more effectively.