How to create a coaching habit?

I read “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier and it has really great nuggets of information. In life, some of us probably played the role of a coach before whether a football coach in high school, a piano teacher from the neighborhood or a manager at work. If you were lucky, this person not only taught you the skills you needed to perform a particular task, but also empowered you to be the best you could be. Such coaches are unfortunately rare in life. In fact, a majority of employees say that coaching hasn’t helped them at work at all.

If you’re a manager, how do you make sure that your coaching moments are effective? First, you need to realize that coaching is not about you – but about the employee. Effective coaching is about empowering a team and improving its long-term performance. Most managers have attended a coaching seminar or two. Unfortunately, only 23 percent of employees report that coaching sessions have had a positive effect on work performance.

How can this be the case? How can we make coaching better?

There are some common problems in the workplace that make it far too easy for team members and leaders to fall into unproductive work habits:

  1. Your team refers all decisions, big and small, to you. They lose motivation, feel no agency, and you become the bottleneck of every project.
  2. You’re overwhelmed at work. You run from meeting to meeting, checking emails on the go. If an employee has an urgent question, they need to find you first.
  3. Your team is dedicated to completing work tasks, but you’re unsure which tasks are important and which make little difference.

As a leader, if you find yourself in one of these unproductive work dynamics, how do you make a change? The key is to develop a coaching habit. Aim to coach your employees for ten minutes every day in an informal setting, rather than scheduling rigid weekly coaching sessions. Coaching should be a regular part of life in the office; you should always be in “coaching” mode. A coaching habit helps you guide your employees toward self-sufficiency. It prevents you from being buried by work and reconnects you and your team to the work that matters most.

So focus on development, not performance. Performance is important, but you won’t empower your team if you’re constantly putting out small fires and forgetting the larger goals. Look for areas in which an employee can grow. Guide your team to becoming better and more effective.

The book proposes three basic questions to initiate and maintain a constructive conversation with an employee.

A lot of managers “coach” by feigning interest and nodding meaningfully as an employee talks. Such behavior isn’t productive for either side. To coach effectively, begin with the Kickstart question. The Kickstart question is an essential tool in your coaching toolbox, and simply involves asking: “What’s on your mind?” Moreover, if you find yourself in a 20-minute discussion about the weekend with an employee you’re looking to coach, asking the Kickstart question will get you back on track.

After you’ve listened carefully to what your employee has to say, move to the AWE question: “And what else?” The AWE question prevents a conversation from becoming stuck on a single topic when it’s clear there’s more the employee wants to say, but perhaps can’t find a way. Asking the AWE question is handy if you find yourself wanting to make a comment, too. As a coach, remember that you have to listen more than speak or offer advice. Your goal is to empower your employees, letting them come to their own conclusions. The worst thing for a leader is a group of employees who run to them every time a decision needs to be made.

In cases where the first two questions in your coaching talk aren’t leading to a productive conversation, consider using the Focus question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?” When an employee starts to lose his train of thought or if you’re having a hard time following, that’s a good time to pop the Focus question.

While an employee might want to vent about problems with a certain project, for instance, it won’t solve anything. The Focus question helps you narrow down the problem so you can tackle it together. In short, it helps you determine which challenge you need to work on first.

It’s not always easy to identify what you need to do at work every day. Similarly, how can you coach an employee if she doesn’t even know why she’s speaking with you? An effective coach knows how to determine an employee’s needs in any given situation. People are always driven by wants or needs and asking the Foundation question can help when a conversation starts going in circles. Use the Foundation question “What do you want?” to get to the heart of the matter.

Scientists say that people are driven by nine major wants and needs: affection, creation, recreation, freedom, identity, understanding, participation, protection and subsistence. The Foundation question helps you to figure out which of these wants or needs is motivating your employee.

Does your employee want you to understand that they need to get home early? Do they want to participate in a project more? Do they need more freedom to explore an idea?

Another important tool in ascertaining the needs and wants of an employee is the Lazy question. Ask the question “How can I help you?” when an employee has nothing to offer but complaints about a situation. The Lazy question sets up a positive coaching moment. Asking this question helps you check if an employee is asking you for something or just wants to let off steam. It also clarifies the issue by pushing your employee to get to the point.

The book also mentions about the Learning question that helps to guide your employee. Ask “what” questions instead of “why” questions. Don’t make the employee feel like she needs to be on the defensive with a question like, “Why is that on your mind?” Ask instead, “What’s on your mind?”

Finally, use every available channel to be a positive and effective coach. Perhaps your team members stay in touch via email or messaging software such as Slack or Whatsapp. Remember that you’re still wearing your coaching hat when you communicate through these tools. Ask questions instead of dishing out advice and you’ll be a step ahead. Happy coaching!

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