I have had the great fortune of working with incredible business leaders, in both corporate America and small business, throughout my career as a consultant, coach and trainer. Over the last few years, there has been an increasing trend for leaders to observe their direct reports and openly, honestly, directly and, almost brutally, provide feedback under the umbrella of coaching. I am here to say coaching is not feedback. I am also here to define effective coaching and the five steps it takes to be an effective coach.
Coaching is a relationship between two people where the leader:
- Asks the right questions at exactly the right time.
- Holds space for the employee’s agenda.
- Helps employees to tap into their potential, passion and purpose while co-creating an action plan to move forward.
I don’t know about you, but the feedback I’ve been given in the past has sounded nothing like the above.
The following five steps to effective coaching will enable every leader to become a true coach.
Step 1: Remove Judgment
Coaching is always and in all ways about the employee’s agenda. Judgment slows or shuts down a coaching moment because it then becomes more about the person coaching and their values (moral and ethical) and less about the employee.
You know if you are in judgment:
- By the words you choose. If your language is cluttered with words such as but/however, good/bad, agree/disagree and right/wrong, you are in judgment. These words are our way of letting others know whether their behaviors are in alignment with our values. These words confirm for others that they are on a path equal to our own and we approve.
- By your body language. Whether we know it or not, our body language talks to people all the time. We let people know how we feel about their decisions by how our body reacts to what they say. Body language that can demonstrate judgment includes rolling eyes, deep sighs, tense shoulders, lack of eye contact and slight turns of the shoulders to disengage from the conversation. Yes, these actions can mean other things as well. What’s important is not the feeling driving these actions but how they are perceived. Take a moment to imagine the last time you noticed someone reacting in this way to something you were saying and reflect about how you felt afterwards. I suspect you felt judged or misunderstood.
- By your intentions. Are you trying to convince someone of something? Are you irritated that they have a different point of view? Do you have an agenda with a planned outcome? You’re in judgment.
Step 2: Accept That Everything Is an Opportunity
Feedback is about addressing and fixing problems. When feedback is given, employees are expected to listen, take the information in, and somehow apply it in a constructive manner for improvement. Most feedback is given out of negative energy.
Coaching has a different view. Coaches see everything as an opportunity: failures, mistakes, missteps. Everything is a moment to learn and grow and is part of the journey essential to creating our best selves.
The foundations of a coaching mindset begin by understanding that:
- Regardless of how much intelligence you have, there is always something to learn from everyone.
- Each moment describes who you are and opens the opportunity to decide if that’s who you want to be.
- Each one of us is already perfect.
- Each of us is greater and wiser than we appear to be.
- Each person we meet is our teacher and student.
- Life is a perfect adventure—a game that cannot be won or lost, only played.
Step 3: Be Curious
Feedback focuses on declarative statements of fact. The leader comes to the meeting with documents of errors, mistakes, and failures that the employee is unprepared to counter. The leader already believes they are right and righteous in the actions they will be taking.
A coach embraces the importance of asking questions. Coaches look for information they might not know. They ask questions to unfold situations for their own deeper understanding.
The types of questions that constitute coaching include:
- Questions that reflect active listening and an understanding of the employee’s perspective.
- Questions that evoke discovery, insight, commitment, and actions.
- Open-ended questions that create greater clarity and new learning.
- Questions that move people towards what they desire while meeting and obtaining performance goals.
Step 4: Co-create the Relationship
Feedback comes from an authoritarian perspective where the relationship is defined by a single source of power and others have no say in the matter. A job description, for example, defines the parameters of how an employee must behave, and their functions or duties determine their level of success. Feedback is based on a pre-determined structure with little to no conversation.
In coaching, the relationship is co-created. Business documents, such as the job description, are used as a guideline for understanding the minimum expectations of work. They do not totally define the relationship or pre-determine what an employee can achieve within their position.
In a co-created relationship, the leader:
- Focuses on building trust and mutual respect.
- Demonstrates respect for the perceptions, learning style and personal being of the employee.
- Shows genuine concern for the employee’s welfare and future.
- Establishes outcomes by having clear agreements and keeping promises.
- Creates an environment where employees want to follow up and share their journey as opposed to meeting imposed mandates.
- Provides ongoing support for and champions new behaviors and actions, including those involving risk taking and the possibility of failure.
Step 5: Design a Mutual Action Plan
Leaders who leverage feedback have a “do this or else” approach to action plans. Regardless of how it’s presented, feedback is a threat of future punishment and possible termination. When an employee’s job is threatened, the employee reacts under stress and goes into survival mode. Essentially, the leader has just pushed that employee further and faster out the door, taking away any potential for growth and change. Now, if this was the goal, fine. Preferably, however, the intention is to train and retain.
The coaching approach to designing action plans comes out of a partnership where both parties walk away with a win-win outlook. Designing action from the coaching perspective doesn’t ignore the necessary results the business requires. It means the leader takes time to fully explain and share, to bypass compliance and gain true commitment.
To design a coaching action plan:
- During the interaction, both parties equally participate in brainstorming actions that will enable the employee to demonstrate, practice, and deepen new learning while achieving the needed results.
- All parties challenge current assumptions to provoke new ideas and find new possibilities for action.
- The plan addresses concerns and major areas for growth.
- The leader helps the employee identify and access different tools and resources for leaning and goal achievement.
- The leader promotes an active experimentation and discovery period where actions and results are used for learning and not held against the employee.
- Plan adjustments are made as needed with the understanding that growth, self-development, and change take time.
A true coaching relationship requires the removal of judgment, the ability to see opportunities even in failure, a willingness to seek the employee’s perspective and to build trust and support, and a commitment to a mutually agreed action plan. Leaders may need help in offering and following through on coaching and in avoiding mere feedback; but coaching will enable their employees to reach their potential and to align their passion and purpose with their work.