The prevalence of coaching in the workplace is increasing, even in today's troubling economic climate. And perhaps this makes sense. Coaching skills are becoming critical management competencies as organizations attempt to develop their employees using fewer financial, human, and training resources.
Coaching is employee development that is customized to each individual and is therefore immediately applicable and doesn't require stepping away from work for extended periods of time. When managers and supervisors master the art of coaching, their relationships with their direct reports are strengthened. And that often translates into increased company loyalty and enhanced motivation and productivity among those reports.
The benefits of coaching are realized when coaching relationships are strong and when employees are dedicated to adhering to the process and to making positive changes. But what can you do when these benefits are thwarted by challenging circumstances - when coaching stalls or when employees aren't following through on coaching assignments or realizing their goals?
Taking the good with the bad
If you recognize any of these signs from your own coaching relationships, congratulations!
Yup, I said congratulations. Why? First, you've noticed that things have gone awry in your relationship, and recognizing that fact is a skill in itself. It's important to not get exclusively focused on the content of the work that you and your coachee are doing together, but to remain attuned to the relationship itself. It's about keeping an awareness of the energy in the room when you're working together, on the nonverbal cues you and your coachee are displaying, and on your comfort level.
Second, you now have a chance to really deepen your coaching relationship and expand what's possible for your coachee. It is often during adversity that we learn the most about ourselves and our relationships. It isn't until you've worked through your first conflict that you truly know how a relationship might hold up. It may be stronger or it may collapse, and a lot can be learned from seeing just how that plays out.
The point during a coaching relationship when things go off the rails is the one that most novice coaches fear, partly because they see this as a period of conflict, and they're generally conflict-averse. To the contrary, I choose to see it as a period for realignment, and an opportunity for which to be grateful. This can be a good perspective to have to get through challenges that are bound to arise in all coaching relationships.
Turning things around
When coaches experience trouble in their client relationships, the first place they look to make improvements is within themselves. A relationship is a product of both parties involved. As the coach, you're not excluded from doing some thinking and work to turn the situation around.
The first place to start is with your self-talk. All of us have voices in our heads that can be either helpful or destructive. In this situation, are any of the following voices present? "I don't know enough about this." "Who am I to be coaching this person?" "She can't possibly make all this happen in our work environment."
The good news is that once you've noticed that these voices are affecting your behavior in a way that you aren't happy about, you can then choose what you want to do with them.
Here's how this might work. Perhaps the voice that says, "This is useless; he's never going to make this change," is impeding your ability to effectively coach.
Start by remembering that this is just a belief, and that, if you want to, you can change it. You might recognize the truth in it - that if coaching continues as it has been, it is useless. Then you have to decide whether you want to honor the voice that says, "He's never going to make this change," or the one that says, "I can coach through this resistance and help him make changes that will really make a positive difference for him." Challenging yourself to view the situation differently may be all that is needed to get your coaching relationship back on track.
Another personal place to explore has to do with how you feel about your coachee. Let's be honest here. You may be asked to coach someone toward whom you may have angry or negative feelings. Here are some questions to consider in identifying and addressing your feelings toward your coachee:
- Which of your buttons does this coachee push? What does he bring out in you that you don't especially like? What self-management is necessary to change your reaction to him?
- Why can't you want the very best for him? Would his success mean that he'd surpass you professionally? Is that okay?
- What would he need to do to earn your respect? Figure this out and share it with him. You're not only working to improve the situation; you're also modeling how to request what you need.
Much of the work that has been suggested up to this point has been internal, but realigning the coaching relationship needs to be a shared problem to solve. It is important to be transparent about what is happening for you and to find out if the coachee is having a similar experience.
Overall, you want to keep these conversations positive. Make sure that your coachee knows how much you value your relationship and how much you value him. Explain that all relationships hit rocky points and that the work you do during those difficult times has real potential to move him along and to produce deeper results.
You may have to steer the focus of these conversations away from blaming. Sure there are things he could be doing better as a coachee, you might have to say, and things you could be doing better as a coach. This isn't about blaming; it's simply about creating a rewarding relationship. So the focus you're going to choose to take is, "What can we do from here?"
Aside from these more general solutions to a faltering coaching relationship, there are specific coaching strategies for many specific challenges that arise. Here are some tips for handling five common coaching challenges.
Your coachee repeatedly says, "I don't know." My first coaching mentor, Caryn Siegel, taught me this amazing tip for responding to the coachee who repeatedly responds, "I don't know." Simply say, "What would you say if you did know?" Somehow this question frees people to use their imaginations. It's like saying, "If you don't know, take a guess" - an approach that gives people the freedom to get it wrong. They can then answer theoretically, and they often access answers that they claim not to have.
Another way to address this problem is to ask the coachee to think of a time when he did know what to do in a similar situation, or ask, "What would you tell a friend in the same situation?"
Your coachee says, "You're the coach. You tell me!" This is the time to remind your coachee of the coach's role, which is not to give advice, but to help him find the answers he has inside him. I usually phrase it this way: "I could give you my answer, but that would only be mine and might not work for you. What do you think needs to be done?" Remember, you are responding this way to help create independence on the part of your coachee.
Your coachee is a glass-half-empty person. Some coachees have a pessimistic perspective that isn't easy to shake. When that's the case, I often start coaching with a question about what it's like for him to have such a perspective, not just at work but in all aspects of his life. I ask what might be possible for him if he tried another perspective, such as, "This is perfect," or "I choose to think positively about this situation."
There also are some clients I let stew in their negative perceptions until we come to a place where it sounds ridiculous even to them. I start with the classic "What's the worst that can happen?" question, but I don't stop there. I keep asking, "And then what? And then what?" Here's how one of these dialogues might sound:
Coach: So, what's the worst thing that can happen?
Coachee: I'll totally bomb this speech.
Coach: And then what?
Coachee: Well, then I'll be embarrassed, and in front of my boss.
Coach: And then what?
Coachee: And then we won't get the client, and it'll look really bad on my record.
Coach: And then what?
Coachee: I won't get promoted again, and no one will want to be on my team.
Coach: And then what?
Coachee: And then I'll be unhappy.
Coach: And then what?
Coachee: Well, I guess I'll get over it.
Your coachee is not completing assignments. Many of my coaching clients struggle when their own employees don't follow through on assignments. The first question I always ask them is, "Did the employees help create them, or were these projects or tasks thrust upon them?"
The thrusting may not have been overt. "Think hard," I say, "even if you got a 'yes' from the employee, did you make it impossible for her to say no?" The origin of the assignment is the same place to look when coachees aren't completing their assignments. Were the actions created by the coachee, created jointly, or imposed by the coach?
When your coachee doesn't complete assignments that he had a hand in inventing, you might try the following approaches:
- Point out the difference between what he accomplished and what he agreed to do. Sometimes the awareness that he will be held accountable is all it takes to get him to finish any future assignments.
- Find out what destructive self-talk got in the way of his completing the assignment. Help him choose a new belief that will enable him to move ahead.
- Determine if the task needs to be changed or break the assignment or task into smaller steps, and check on these milestones more frequently.
- Help him to articulate why he agreed to do the task in the first place. Calling a former client because he "should," or because he said he would, may not be as motivating as doing it because it might lead to new business or because he likes to connect with others.
- Explore what he loses out on by not completing the assignment (for example, "I don't get to feel in control without creating a plan"), as well as what he gains by not doing it (for example, "No one knows what my expected outcomes are so I don't really have to produce anything.") Sometimes he'll find out that the pull not to do something is actually stronger than the pull to do it.
- With their agreement, resort to bribery or punishment. I once had a client who wanted to write a budget and had put off doing it for a long time. We agreed that there needed to be some incentive for him finally to complete it. We decided that he would pay $50 to the charity of my choice for every week he was late in getting the work done. This incentive or punishment was his idea because he said he hated to lose money, but if he did have to pay, at least someone would benefit.
- Ask how he thinks he can get back on track.
- Express confidence that he can do what he sets out to do.
Your coachee is stuck. When your coachee complains about being stuck, it's usually partnered with a strong belief about what he has to do in a situation or what is expected of him (for example, "I should be closer to completion on this project, but I'm just not getting anywhere"). These beliefs sometimes are stale or incorrect, but he'll hold on to them because he doesn't see that there are any other choices. Try some questions such as "Is that true?" "What if it's not true?" "Is the opposite also true?" "If it's true, what opportunities are present?"
To help your coachee to get unstuck, have him try another perspective - maybe even one that seems totally unrelated to his problem. Here's an exercise for that:
- Have your coachee state his problem (for instance, "I'm in a dead-end job") and set it aside.
- Ask him to think of another unrelated topic - say, cooking - and for four minutes jot down everything he can about the new topic (such as preheat the oven, buy fresh ingredients, measure carefully).
- Ask him to consider what items on his cooking list can apply to his original problem. Who knows? He might find he just needs some seasoning to make that job more palatable.
Another powerful tool for the coachee who is stuck is the "fake it 'till you make it" approach. When a client recently told me that she didn't feel like an executive despite a recent promotion, I told her to start acting like one. Because of the behavioral theory of cognitive dissonance, once people start behaving a certain way that is at odds with their beliefs, their beliefs tend to change. So, if a coachee feels stuck, you might ask her to behave as if she isn't stuck; her belief about the situation may follow suit.
If your coaching relationship is hitting any snags, remember that you are not alone, that this can be a pivotal moment in the coaching relationship, and that there are many benefits to coaching that can only be realized if you take these challenges on and overcome them. T+D