February 6, 2015

Helping managers to be clear

Sometimes team leaders, or managers, or whatever you want to call them, are not so clear in what they expect from people working in their team. Sometimes they hope that an external coach or trainer can take over and provide this clarity for them. That usually does not work. 

Leaders don't always find it easy to be clear about their expectations of employees. This may be due to the fact that they don't want to be authoritarian or to the fact that, in the past, they may have had some negative reactions from employees when they tried to be clear about their expectations. As a coach I once got a request from a manager to coach one of his team members. I asked what his goal was for the coaching and he responded in what I thought were vague terms. I do not remember precisely what he said -it was nearly 15 years ago- but I got the impression that the coaching was entirely intended to be for the benefit of the team member and that the manager did not have any specific expectations of the coaching himself.

When the coaching session took place the team member, my client, told me about how he had had a rough time in his personal life. As the conversation proceeded he developed a rather clear picture of his desired future and of some specifice steps forward he might take so that he might feeling and functioning better again. At the end of the conversation he was energized and the thanked me for the pleasant and useful conversation. I was satisfied too about the conversation and I felt it had led to some useful things.

The next day I received a phone call from the managers of my client, the person whom I had previously spoken to. He told me that the team member was very enthusiastic about the coaching conversation he had had with me. But he also told met that he himself was not too happy about it. I asked him what the reason was for this. He replied that he had feeling that the coaching session had been about the right topics. He told me that the employee did not perform well and that he was disappointed about the fact that the employee had returned very optimistic from the conversation while he thought that things weren't going well at all. When I asked whether the employee knew about his dissatisfaction regarding his performance he replied that he had explicitly mentioned this because he had hoped that this might have become clear in the coaching conversation.

This situation was a rather important learning experience for me. Managers sometimes find it hard to speak honestly and clearly about what they expect from their subordinates. Sometimes they then hire a coach or a trainer hoping that this person will clarify problems or expectations. But coaches and trainers cannot and must not take over this important part of the job of a manager. I do sympathize with managers who struggle with how they should clarify their views and expectations. It is sometimes not easy to find the right words and tone of voice. Employees do not always respond 'easily' when managers try to clarify their expectations. But when an employees does not perform well it is important for a manager to be clear about what is and isn't expected in the job. When employees do not know what their managers think and expect it is only logical that they do not take these thoughts and expectation into account. And while speaking clearly about expectation is not always easy, it can be learned.

Nowadays, I ask more questions when a managers asks me to coach an employee. I use the circle technique for this. I start with the outer circle. First, I ask what the managers thinks the coaching should lead to. To find this out I use questions like: how will you notice afterwards that the coaching has been successful? What will be better? What will the person do differently, better? I keep probing until I feel I really understand what the output of the coaching should be in terms of the desired behavior of the employee. Then, I proceed to the inner circle and ask which things do not have to change because they are already going right. I continue asking questions until I have at least several examples of things which are going right. Through this way of asking questions you help managers to formulate more specifically what the purpose of the coaching is. In the coaching conversation with the employee I (literally) put the circles on the table and discuss what I have understood from my conversation with the manager. Then, I ask whether the employee thinks I have understood the purpose of the coaching right.

When a manager says that he has no goal with the coaching I double-check this with an extra question like: would it be okay with you if the employee, after all, decide not to go through with the coaching? If the manager confirms that this would be no problem, it is clear that the coaching can be solely directed at the goals of the client. However, if the manager responds reluctantly and negatively to the question I understand that there some implicit expectation which the employee has to meet. I then ask questions until I understand what these expectations are. In this way you can help managers be clear in a constructive way. Once these expectations have become clear, they can be used in the coaching process.

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