One of the most challenging aspects of a supervisor’s job is having difficult coaching conversations with an employee, especially when poor performance or unacceptable behaviors are involved. What typically makes them challenging is that they are emotionally charged and can easily be diverted away from the actual issue, concern, or opportunity for development. However, these conversations are essential to be an effective manager and leader.
Because we all dread these difficult coaching conversations, we do just about everything to avoid them and we create excuses and justifications that allow ourselves off the hook. How many times have you said, “I will find a more appropriate time”; “Well, it wasn’t that bad, I will catch it if it happens again”; or “I’m so busy and have a lot more pressing things to get done”? Sometimes, even when we have the conversation, we sugar-coat the delivery so much causing the employee to completely miss the intent. Everyone may feel good at the end but nothing is resolved or changed. Other times, we race through the conversation like we are experiencing a root canal, wanting to just get it over with as quickly as possible, without any consideration or empathy for the employee on the receiving end of that type of delivery. Or, sometimes the delivery is to the extreme opposite end , is overly severe, focused on blame and finger pointing causing the employee to shut down and become defensive. None of these will create the win-win we should be striving for.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to have difficult coaching conversations that will result in stronger employee engagement, better ways of managing your employees, and providing employees opportunities for true growth. These conversations can feel more achievable when we generate the courage to make them happen, learn some simple steps to help them unfold tactfully and then practice. Here are the 6 simple steps to engage an employee in an effective coaching conversation:
1. Be Proactive: Set clear expectations for every employee and their role, provide regular feedback, and hold biweekly one-on-one meetings with each employee to review what is going well, goals, deadlines, and improvement areas. Doing this will greatly reduce the need to have difficult coaching conversations.
2. Create the Environment for Success: Choose an appropriate time and setting for the coaching conversation and let the employee know in advance what you want to discuss. It should be held in a private setting and at a time when you and the employee can be free from distractions in order to focus on the conversation. Prepare yourself mentally with a mindset that all feedback is a gift, the issue or concern is not personal so the focus can remain on the root issue, behavior or performance and solutions to it.
3. Get clear: Before you have any conversation, be precise on what you plan to communicate. Start with what is working well as it creates an environment where the employee will be more receptive to listening. Also, acknowledge your commitment to the
future and the goals you are both working towards. Then identify what specific behavior changes, actions, results do you need to communicate to the employee. And don’t forget the “whys”. Lastly, plan the specific words you will use to describe the positive (what’s going well), your commitment, and the derailing behaviors or performance that need addressed. But remember, the way you deliver the conversation will be just as critical as the words you use.
4. Hold the Conversation: Coaching conversations should follow the 90/10 rule. Do 90% of the listening and 10% of the talking. Once you have set the stage with what is working well, your commitment to the goals, and have stated the issue/concern/ behavior/performance, the talking should happen in the form of questions that help the employee discover some solutions and answers within themselves. Coaching conversations are made more difficult because emotions from both the supervisor and employee are often involved and when that happens it is difficult to listen clearly. So seek confirmation that you are both on the same page. Pay attention to not just what is said but also what you observe in body language. Here are a few questions to ask to do that: I can see that you are surprised by this conversation. Am I reading that correctly? In our conversation, you said XXX – did I understand that correctly? How would you summarize what we have discussed?
5. Commit and Recap: The end result of any effective coaching conversation is a clear commitment to results, action steps, how to keep track of progress, and the timelines. Unfortunately, we often think we have reached a shared understanding only to find later we didn’t. This step is very important to foster accountability and a way to do this is by summarizing by saying, “So, we agree…”
6. Follow up: Many times we are so relieved that the conversation is over that we simply want to stay away from the topic and/or person for some period of time. It is vital though that you follow up and provide feedback when the issue/behavior/performance improves…or when it doesn’t. Follow up is essential to foster accountability and continued improvement.
Although there is no magic remedy, the 6 simple steps provided, along with practice and introspective assessment afterwards will help any manager and leader improve in one of the most challenging aspects of their job.