Employees deserve honest coaching

Jack's executive assistant drove him crazy. She forgot to write meetings in his calendar, sent memos to the wrong people and was curt on the phone.  

Last week he exploded in a fit of anger and fired her. She was dumbfounded. "He never told me there was anything wrong! He seemed crabby sometimes but he never said he was unhappy with my work." 

Tom is a vice president for a medium-sized company. One of the managers who reports to him is a weak performer. In spite of the fact that the president has urged Tom to take some action, he can't seem to bring himself to demote him or fire him. When pushed, Tom makes excuses for his manager rather than hold him accountable. After all, he reasons, this fellow only has six years until retirement.  

Janet is a supervisor in a small manufacturing plant. Janet has gone to her boss on several occasions to discuss her promotability. He always tells her the same thing, "Don't worry, your performance is just fine. Something will come along that’s suited to your skills."  

After four years of hearing the same old story, Janet left the company and is now working as a manager for a competitor. After she left, a former co-worker told her that her old boss made negative remarks about Janet's communication style.  

Jack, Tom and Janet are self-muzzled managers. They are unable to level with their own employees about what they want. They not only hurt themselves, they cripple the very people they are trying to shield.  

Under their leadership, good employees lose their enthusiasm and poor performers propagate. Political gamesmanship flourishes because the person with all the cards can't be depended upon to keep things fair. Decisions rarely get made and those that do are easily unmade by those who choose not to be accountable.  

Some of it boils down to a reluctance to deliver bad news. The fear of being disliked for making a judgment sends these managers scurrying for their rationales: "I'll hurt his feelings," "She might cry," "He'll be devastated," "He'll lose his motivation," "She'll stir up trouble in the unit."  

An interesting thing happens when you ask managers like Jack, Tom and Janet a question about their own bosses. Ironically, they often complain about a lack of honest feedback or coaching. "How can I advance unless I really know what I must work on?" "I'd give anything to know what he really thinks."  

Ask any working adult this question: "If you were doing something at work that was getting in the way of your performance or advancement, would you want your boss to tell you?" The person would probably respond, "If it is something I had the power to change, of course I would want to know!"  

What are we so afraid of? Perhaps it's the fear of saying the wrong thing, alienating an employee, receiving a grievance or becoming unpopular.  

Here are some tips for you to use the next time you feel like holding back important performance information:

  • Don't postpone the feedback. The longer you do, the more likely hostility will build toward the employee and the problem will be blown out of proportion.
  • Analyze the severity and urgency of the problem. If it is getting in the way of his or her success, you have a responsibility to be honest with this employee.
  • Bring up only one issue and give a description of the problem not your judgment about it. For example, "I believe that it is important that staff meetings start on time. I know you're very busy but I'd like you to make a stronger effort to be on time." Don't open with, "You are always late for staff meetings and constantly waste everyone's time."
  • Only bring up behavior the employee has the ability to change. Your employee can learn to give smoother presentations but probably can't do much about a squeaky voice.
  • Give feedback in a private area. However, making a big production out of finding an out-of-the-way place can make the message seem worse than it really is.
  • It's very important to tell the employee about your positive intent and your desire to help him or her succeed. For example, "I know you are interested in getting ahead. I want to help you succeed in this company. As I see it, the best way to help you is to give you honest coaching."
  • If you don't have quantifiable facts, say, "It appears to me..." or "As I see it..."
  • Once you have made your point, don't apologize for it or sugar coat it. Calmly listen to your employee’s reaction.
  • Your employee may benefit from examples and advice you may have for solving this problem. It's also wise to ask your employee if he or she has any ideas for solving it.
  • Hold the person responsible for solving the problem. If your employee blames others or makes excuses, re-focus the discussion by paraphrasing, "You feel that your late reports are Sue's fault. You are accountable for the overall results on this project. What can you do to make sure you don't miss your deadline?"
  • Don't forget to ask what you can do to assist your employee. Often, managers get in the way without knowing it and don't give their employees opportunities to tell them so.
  • Finally, speak in a matter-of-fact manner. If your tone and demeanor are upbeat and natural, your employee is more likely to see the discussion as helpful coaching. If you wrinkle your brow, avoid eye contact, sugar coat your words or lean forward in a worried pose, your employee will become alarmed. If you are straightforward about the discussion, your employee will be able to hear it for what it is-helpful coaching from someone who cares enough to help them succeed.  

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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