I Coached Them. But It Didn't Work.

You've been coaching an employee and it's not working.

You say things like:

We've been over and over this and she still isn't improving. I thought he understood but a week after our conversation he's still doing the same thing.

What if I shared that the coaching conversation itself isn't actually going to change anything?

 It's just the starting line.

Recently I was working with a manager who was frustrated that his employees would say "I understand" at the end of a coaching conversation but then go back to their desk and keep doing the same thing.

"Do you ask them to restate, in their own words, what they're going to do differently?"

Step 1: During a coaching conversation, the other person should restate what they see as the behavior change they will make. By doing this, they are reframing and rewording what they've heard you say. This is one way it begins to stick.

After a coaching conversation, many managers assume that's all that needs to be done. I mean, we're both adults, right? We talk about it, we agree that change needs to happen, then you go out and do it because that's my expectation.

Umm …. but we're humans too.

So that makes it messy. There are competing priorities. We forget the conversation even happened once we leave work because our personal life takes over. We don't really want to change, so we wait to see if we're going to be held accountable.

 Step 2: After a coaching conversation, follow up regularly. Ask probing questions that encourage the other person to share feelings and thoughts. Asking "where do you think you're struggling?" or "how are you feeling about xxx" or "where do you think you've made progress?" creates meaningful conversation that reinforces the behavior you're expecting and provides a chance to process information differently. Answering these questions takes analysis and evaluation, which means the brain has to draw connections and justify decisions.

Ok done. We've talked about it. I've followed up daily for a week. Surely that's enough effort. I mean, I have a day job and I'm spending too much time on this. 

It can stop here, but the behavior change won't stick. It might stick - for a few weeks, until the next performance conversation, maybe even through that big project the team is working on. But at some point, that person will fall back into their old ways, because they never made it to the most critical part of learning - creation.

Step 3: For as long as it takes, offer support until they are creating new knowledge independently. This could look like:

  •  Coming up with new ideas: You've coached Mark on improving how personable he is with new clients, and without being asked he decides to ask a colleague to help him come up with easy conversation openers and schedules a monthly brainstorm meeting with them.
  • Teaching someone else how to do what they've done. You've coached Sarah on how to manage email more efficiently and after she figures out how to use the rules feature in Outlook, she volunteers to teach the team.

Coaching to achieve true behavior change is tough. It takes thought, effort and follow up. It takes optimism and persistence to see the process through. It takes time. Time that we don't think we have, but then we're back at the starting line, having yet another conversation about the same behavior. Which takes more time.

 And more complaining.

Check Your Intentions at the Door

Tone is everything, No wait, word choice is everything. No, it's timing. Timing is everything.

There are so many components of "good" communication that its hard to remember what do to (or say). This means it's our subconscious that is usually guiding the conversation.

Subconscious? Yes. The part of our brain that is shaped by life - how we were raised, how we've been treated by others, the types of work experiences we've had.

It looks like:

Interrupting (without thinking "is now the right time to share my idea?") because of the excitement to share or the fear that it is going to be impossible to get a word in edge wise.

Yelling (without thinking "if I put myself in her shoes, how would she feel if I yelled?") at an employee when a deadline is missed because of pressure from the boss or numbness to the effect of yelling in the workplace.

Firing off a rude email (without thinking "should I call him or walk over to his desk instead?") because a colleague messed up on a project and wanting him to feel bad about it because that's what's been done to you in the past.

You get the picture. It's speaking without thinking. Everyone does it, but frequency is the difference. If 90% of the time you are thinking before speaking, then very rarely do you say something rude, embarrass an employee, or come across as inflexible (or worse, arrogant). Because that means you're checking your intention at the door.

  • Am I saying this to purposely be rude?
  • Could how I'm saying this be taken the wrong way?
  • How is this person feeling right now?

When we pay attention to our intention, then tone, timing and word choice become irrelevant. If we intend to be mean, our actions reflect it, but if we intend to be kind, which is what I wholeheartedly believe all people intend, then our actions reflect kindness. And how much better does it feel when we work with people who 90% of the time purposely intend to be kind, and when they mess up the other 10%, realize what they've done and apologize for it?

Next time you walk into a meeting, pause at the door and ask yourself "What are my intentions for this meeting?" It will change the conversation.