To motivate employees, coach, don't criticize

Dear Joan:
I'm a manager responsible for overseeing the computer systems for a large company. I manage mostly technical types of people and here's the heart of my problem. 

I am a technician myself and I was never trained to handle the people problems I now face. For instance, I have several very talented technical programmers who are highly motivated by the work they do but they tend to get off on technical tangents that may be stimulating for them but are expensive for the company with a limited pay off. One of them recently got 80% of the way through a project and then decided to start over because he thought of a new way to do it. These brainstorms are hard to sell to top management when I'm explaining why we're over budget or behind in our schedule. 

These people are very talented and I hesitate to confront them too strongly because I'd hate to lose them. They tend to be committed to themselves and their specialty and if I pressure them they may leave. I've tried to explain the situation but they don't seem to change. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

You're not alone. Most managers have been promoted because they were very good at their specialty. Although many figure out how to manage by trial and error, or are lucky enough to come by the skills naturally, others really don't understand how to lead and coach others. In fact, many tell me their technical specialty was a snap compared to the complexities of management. 

Here are a few approaches for you to try: 

Your employees may not realize the impact their tangents have on the bottom line. An occasional comment from you may not be sinking in. 

Hold regular meetings to inform them of the challenges your department faces with regard to budget and goals. One on one communication simply doesn't have the same impact. At these meetings, ask everyone to give input to how the goals will be met and then discuss the impact of delays and rework. Future budget dollars, approval for new projects and department credibility are on the line and they need to understand that. 

Involve them in documenting why a project is off track and bring them along when you discuss it with members of top management or the internal client. The purpose isn't to blame, or embarrass the individual. On the contrary, it can be very useful to expose him or her to the reality of the situation and allow them to provide their input to the decisions that need to be made. In fact, their input may even convince top management that redoing a system may be a smarter thing to do than pursuing the original plan. 

At the beginning of a project, ask them to develop a communication plan. In this plan they are to schedule update meetings with you and with other key individuals to report on their progress. This way they can't get too sidetracked. 

Technical types are no different from the rest of us when it comes to feedback. Ironically, your hesitance to give negative feedback may end up being the reason they do leave. Most people want the feedback so they can grow and improve. 

The trick is to make it sound like coaching instead of criticism. Here are the steps:

  1. Use their goal as a motivator to change.
  2. Describe what is getting in the way and why (without blaming).
  3. Offer an alternative behavior. Here is how it would sound, "John, I know you take great pride in your technical credibility and you'd want to know if something were getting in the way of that...I know you want to do a perfect job on your work but the delays are causing problems and it's going to damage your reputation- and the department's- if we continue to miss our deadlines. What I'd like to do is work with you to make sure our original proposal is as well thought out as possible so we can avoid delays and rework in the future."

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,, or 
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