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Coaching, Not Judging for Healthy Organizations

By Sandra A. Mobley

A few years ago there was much talk about the need for managers to become leaders. Now the business literature is telling managers that they should become coaches. The truth is, many skills are needed to manage and the latest thinking has focused on a set of skills that often come into play when the leadership and coaching worlds intersect.

Let God Judge, and Let Managers Coach
The typical boss-as-God working environment puts employees on the defensive because they live in constant fear of being judged. A judging relationship makes employees hide their mistakes, defend their behavior, and refuse to ask for help or admit their weaknesses or vulnerabilities. It's not surprising that a working atmosphere characterized by a judging mentality also features low morale, high absenteeism, and little teamwork.

On the other hand, a coaching atmosphere creates trust and builds support. A coaching relationship helps people work out issues and find their own answers through the skillful use of probing questions. Coaches help employees recognize their strengths, uncover their blind spots and offer possibilities and options that employees had not considered in evaluating their situations.

A great coach helps you do your best work, as Michael Jordan confirmed when he said he wouldn't play for any coach but Phil Jackson because Phil brought out the best in him.

The value of coaching has become clear as more and more organizations apply the concepts of coaching and enjoy the rewards of a healthier work environment.

The Value of Coaching
In my 15 years as a manager, consultant, and coach, I have found that people are far more aware of their weaknesses than their strengths. In fact, they seem to take their strengths for granted and minimize them rather than capitalize on them. Some of my biggest successes as a coach have been helping people recognize and leverage strengths they had undervalued for years.

Recently, a client who is brilliant at strategic thinking and sales, but only fair at people management and administration, was feeling overwhelmed by myriad details and personnel problems. As a result, he had little energy for marketing and developing the company's long-term strategy - what he does best. After coaching, he decided to hire a chief operating officer with strong administrative and people skills which allowed him the time to play to his strengths and ultimately made the company healthier.

People can excel when they focus on and enhance their strengths. Successful people are aware of their weaknesses and take steps to minimize their impact, but they do not go overboard in trying to overcome them. Rather they seek positions that spotlight what they do well.

Skills That Make Coaching Work
For some managers, adding coaching to an already lengthy list of responsibilities can feel like the straw that breaks the camel's back. But I suspect many managers are already developing coaching relationships and having coaching conversations with their employees. By learning ways to coach more skillfully, coaching sessions can be more effective and feel less burdensome. As employees develop their abilities, they become more self-motivated and self-managing.

1. Create a context where you are prepared to coach and the employee is open to coaching. The things you say and do to set the stage are important here. First, let the person know that the purpose of the coaching relationship is to support his or her overall development and effectiveness. If you are only willing to coach someone to be more effective in his or her current position, make that clear. If you are willing to explore opportunities outside of those boundaries, state that as well.

2. Use reflective listening by hearing the words and reading the emotional content. It is a wonderful gift to have someone listen to you completely, giving you his or her full attention. It can also be helpful to have someone reflect back to you what he or she heard and felt from listening to you. We are sometimes unaware of anger or pain we have around a situation because we have buried the feelings. When these feelings are noticed and reflected back, we have greater awareness of ourselves.

3. Ask questions that help to open new possibilities, explore perceptions and assumptions, and provide new ways of evaluating the same data. The key to this skill is that you must be genuinely curious. When your questions respect the employee's thought process, you support his or her own questioning of long-held assumptions. For years, managers have received positive feedback for having the answers and giving advice. It is much harder to ask skillful questions than to give advice. The goal is for the employee to find the answer that works for him or her.

4. Give useful feedback. As mentioned earlier, managers may feel compelled to give "constructive" feedback rather than positive feedback. If constructive feedback is needed, the best approach is to ask the employee what he or she thinks should be worked on. In the majority of situations, the employee is very aware of his/her shortcomings. When those areas are enumerated by the employee, suggest working on the one or two you think would be most beneficial to improve upon. This keeps you in the realm of coaching, not judging.

We spend most of our waking time at work. Let's make the workplace more supportive and nurturing. Think about when you have done your best work: was it in a fearful and hostile environment or one that was supportive and playful? I find that when people trust one another and have fun, magical things happen for the employees, the customers, and the organization. So forget about judging and start coaching.
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