How do you motivate people to bring their best effort to the workplace every day? Most managers will say it’s all about shaping behavior through strong incentives and rewarding positive outcomes, while also establishing appropriate consequences for poor performance. No doubt, a well-designed performance management system is imperative. Yet, talented people need more than carrots and sticks to reach their full potential. According to New York Times Bestselling Author, Dan Pink, smart professionals require three things; autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be intrinsically motivated in their jobs (1). This is why the critical skill of coaching separates a good manager from a top manager in today’s workplace.
Managers who are skilled coaches help their people to grow and develop beyond their current capacity, execute self-directed plans, and bring their unique gifts to the world in a purposeful way. Conversely, mangers who do not coach well set their reports up for stagnation, mediocrity, and disengagement. Many managers, today, understand this, and are genuinely interested in becoming a better coach. As such, I’ve made coaching skills development a top priority in my leadership programs for years. After nearly a decade of training thousands of people, I’ve noticed a few common coaching mistakes many managers make that I’d like to share with you.
1. Trying to Solve the Problem – Bar none, this is the single biggest mistake most managers make when coaching their people. It makes perfect sense. A report comes to you with a workplace challenge, and aren’t you supposed to provide them with solutions? Not if you’re coaching them! The best managers will resist the strong urge to provide solutions straightaway and instead ask smart and powerful questions that unlock learning. Then, as ideas emerge in conversation, the report is more intrinsically motivated to act on them because they are their own. Why do we as managers find this so difficult to do? It’s about identity. You are likely defining your value as a manager as a fixer, a doer, an expert in your craft. Instead, try shifting your identity to one of a facilitator. Your true value is in your curiosity, and in your belief that your reports are more creative and insightful than they (or you) might possibly imagine.
I offer you subscribe to the 80/20 rule to stay on track as a coach. A good coaching conversation is 80% your report talking, and 20% you asking smart questions that create momentum. If you pause and notice that this ratio is out of whack, it’s likely because you are trying too hard to personally solve the problem. Step back and regain perspective on where your true value lies.
2. Ignoring Emotions – Most coaching conversations have a strong human component to them. Perhaps a report is having a problem influencing a decision-maker, challenged by a co-worker’s personality, or uncertain of what the next stages of their career might be. Yet, many managers distance themselves from the messy emotional stuff and immediately move to generating options for a technical solution. Human challenges require us to exercise a little humanity first. Your report is experiencing emotions as a result of these challenges, so meet them where they are and help them to feel heard first.
Use reflexive listening techniques like, “What I am hearing is that…” and “It sounds to me like this is a (frustrating, disappointing, overwhelming, etc.) experience for you.” In helping them to hear their own voice, and then naming/validating their emotions, you are demonstrating presence and emotional intelligence. You are also creating the conditions for success. Whereas before, emotions may have clouded their vision for available options. In leading with your humanity first, you’ve helped them to process these emotions and move on to rational problem solving on their own.
3. Taking the Bait – Many managers, especially those new to coaching, are so eager to help that they accidentally “collude” with their report on their problem they face. They are doing all the right things like deep listening, exercising empathy, and helping their report to hear themselves. Yet, in doing so, they are only seeing the challenge through their report’s eyes, and losing objectivity. Great coaching is often about holding multiple perspectives simultaneously, and helping your report to see alternatives.
You may need to be provocative and ask your report, “How did you contribute to this mess?” We often believe our problems exist outside of us rather than within us, and this is one of my favorite questions to help a coachee see the impact of their own behavior. Or, maybe, you pretend to bring the other party “into the room” and ask “if John were here right now, what might he say?” As a general rule, begin with strong empathy, yet remember there are (at least) three sides to every coaching conversation; 1) your report’s story, 2) the other side’s story, and 3) the truth. Great managers help their reports to see more of the truth, so they can choose more influential actions.
The good news is that most managers tend to overcome these three coaching mistakes rather quickly. All it takes is a little training and deliberate practice. If you are interested in helping your managers to become better coaches, contact me directly at email@example.com to learn about our management development programs.
David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran and consultant to thousands of Fortune 500 managers, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces. Get a copy of his Amazon Bestselling book, “Growing Leaders: 20 Articles to Challenge, Inspire, and Amplify Your Leadership” by clicking here.
(1) Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
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