How to Navigate Key Pitfalls of Coaching Employees

Are you a manager attempting to coach your employees and feeling like (more than) some of them are just not ideal coaching ‘material’?

You might be feeling this way because:

  • People aren’t prepared. They say things like: “You know, that’s a tough question. I don’t know what’s on my mind.”
  • They don’t do what they ‘committed’ to doing. They say things like: “I have a confession to make… I wasn’t able to get to my action list.”
  • They have blind spots that keep them from working on what matters. They say things like: “You know, the real issue here is this project team. If it weren’t for them I’d be fine.”

Now, before I say any more, I want to first tell you that you’re not alone in feeling this way.

In fact, just the other day I was talking with a coach in training who told me that her ability to succeed in supervised conversations (that’s when a faculty member listens to a coaching conversation in order to give the coach feedback) was almost completely dependent of the ‘quality’ of client she had.

I’ve also often heard this same thing from professional coaches.  So, let’s talk about why this might be happening. After that, I’d like to invite you to try a couple of strategies that will enable you to coach your employees more effectively.

First, one barrier to being an effective coach to your employees is that for many of us, the prospect of someone helping us – to do anything – is initially unappealing.

Have you ever heard the expression “if you need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm?”

The existence of a seemingly endless amount of self-help books supports the idea that we want help, but social science research* indicates we don’t want to ask a person for it (many of us are conditioned that it’s a sign of weakness, we’re afraid to be seen as ‘flawed’ / let people see our vulnerabilities, etc.).

* Examples: Edgar Schein’s books on the helping relationship, Peter Block on consulting

That’s partly what’s responsible for your attempts to ‘coach’ your staff being met with resentment, defensiveness, and a host of other behaviours – like the ones at the beginning of this blog – and causing things to be thrown off course.

Especially when we react in these situations with more forcefulness, persistence and defensiveness, which is not uncommon.

When you attempt to help your staff through coaching, the power imbalance between you is magnified even more.

So, here’s a tip:

To balance the relationship in your coaching conversations, don’t ask how you can help your staff, ask them to help you.

Try saying things like:

  • “Help me understand were you’re coming from”
  • “Help me get this right – you’re bothered by your teammates because a few of them are taking credit for your ideas?”

Starting with “what can I help you with?” will only make the imbalance greater.  And this leads us to insight number two.

Even if you do manage to restore the balance somewhat by asking for your employees’ help, it’s possible you still have not built up enough trust to have a coaching conversation.

Research on this topic tells us that for your employees, a trusting relationship is a precondition of working with you as their coach.

Just think about common coaching questions like ‘what’s on your mind’ and ‘what’s your biggest challenge’.  These questions require us to share details of our lives that many of us don’t often reveal to others – even those closest to us.

So try this.

  • Instead of asking your employees what’s on their mind, and then attempting to work them through a coaching process or model, simply make time to listen to them, in whatever form they show up.

Doing so in an informal environment, like on a walk, or in a cafe, will make it even more evident that you are attempting to build a relationship with them – one that will be more conducive to coaching.

Be patient and encouraging, and when the time is right, you’ll be able to begin challenging your people with some of those great coaching questions you’ve been saving up.

I encourage you to replace thinking of your employees as unsuitable for coaching with thinking of them as people very judiciously navigating some of the pitfalls and traps of entering into a coaching relationship with you – and yourself as someone else who is doing the very same thing.

Related:  Being a Good Listener

Kwela’s Coaching for Performance workshop provides the core management skills that maximize employee performance and engagement.

Tyler Wier, (former) Senior Consultant