This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Most managers and team leaders don’t know how to manage their staff well. Research consistently shows this. For instance, global surveys by Gallup performance management consultancy show that around 85% of all employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. An astounding figure! Likewise, many senior communicators don’t know how to draw top performance from their staff.
Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Around 70% of the differences in engagement between US teams are due to the varied quality of their managers or team leaders. Figures obviously vary in different countries, but the substance is the same, especially in the Western hemisphere.
Gallup research has found:
In a global survey reported in 2017 in the MIT Sloan Management Review, only about one-third of 500 managers said they knew how to help people change, and less than 10% were confident of making behavior change stick over time. These types of consistent figures prove that traditional performance-management approaches are not working. As managers have the greatest impact on driving performance and engagement within their teams, managers need to change their approach.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate any figures for the levels of job engagement in the communication/PR profession. However, from decades of observation, and the fact that communication/PR is one of the most stressful types of jobs, I think it is highly likely the job engagement of communicators is no better than overall business trends. Being busy does not necessarily mean you are very engaged.
If your experience in the communication profession is like mine, no boss or supervisor has ever done much to help me develop in my job, except approving my attendance at external conferences and workshops. What’s more, when I became a manager in various organizations, my bosses never got around to train me on how to manage staff or help them develop. In my biggest corporate affairs management role, I was boss of 12 staff. Organizational leaders left me to my own devices on how to engage with them.
Managers much become coaches, according to the Gallup organization in its 2017 State of the American Workplace report. Gallup studies indicate that managers must take ownership of their employees’ development and think of themselves in a new way: as a coach, not a boss. They need to create an ongoing dialogue about performance that is individualized to the needs and unique talents of each employee. Gallup experts further say:
“Employees used to expect to work for a boss. Now, they’re looking for a coach. Because they don’t just want to be satisfied with their role or their job. Your employees want personal and professional development, immediately and for the future.”
Research by McKinsey consultants found that many managers traditionally spent only 10-40% of their time actively supervising their employees, with the rest of their time spent on administrative work and meetings:
“At best-practice companies, managers allocate 60-70% of their time to frontline activities, much of it in high-quality individual coaching. The bottom-line benefit is significant…”
At these companies, administration activities are streamlined to make time for coaching.
The most important finding from a 2015 meta-analysis of 17 rigorous studies of workplace coaching is that workplace coaching works. The researchers found that workplace coaching has a small to moderate effect of coaching on skill development, a bigger positive effect on mood and motivation – but the biggest and best effect was on performance improvement.
The verdict from this research is clear. When it comes to workplace coaching, best results are likely to come from focusing on improving individual performance. In delivering workplace coaching, these guidelines may not apply to all businesses in all situations. But bear in mind that:
Only 56% of HR leaders said that their organization had a system to train and prompt managers to coach employees, according to the 2016 SHRM/Globoforce survey of “employee experience as a business driver.” This points to a big need for organizational leaders need to take ownership of manager development to teach them how to be effective coaches. McKinsey consultants agree:
“The soft skills needed to conduct meaningful performance conversations don’t come naturally to many managers, who often perform poorly in uncomfortable situations. Building their confidence and ability to evaluate performance fairly and to nudge employees to higher levels of achievement are both musts. While the frequency of performance conversations matters, our research emphasizes that their quality has the greatest impact.”
We need to understand what workplace coaching actually is and how it is different from other types of supervisory behavior. This new understanding lays a foundation for training and outlines what is expected of managers when they commit to a coaching role with their direct reports. This is performance development of employees rather than performance management.
Workplace coaching is defined as an activity that unlocks a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them, according to the experts. One aspect of this is helping employees to shape their career paths. Luna & Cohen give valuable insights into “How to Mentor Someone Who Doesn’t Know What Their Career Goals Should Be,” in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article.
Coaching creates valuable benefits to the individual, to the coach and to the organization. The best coaches tend to be managers who take the time to connect with each team member authentically and individually. They value how their employees naturally think and behave, and use that information to match employees with assignments and projects that energize them. This is easier said than done in PR, because we usually don’t have much choice about such matching – our staff (usually small in number) are flat out in specialist areas, eg media relations, internal communication, etc. They don’t have much time to commit to further assignments without dropping time on some current work.
However, as McKinsey consultants recently said:
“There may be many situations where managers feel like they don’t have time. I can think about many client settings where the first thing we did was get a handle on what the daily manager routine was today and then what it should be. The manager is saying, ‘I don’t have time to talk to the people who do the work for me. I do have time to do paperwork, to do email, and go to meetings.’ When you say it that way, it is absurd that it’s not happening.”
Good coaches also know their team members need to be engaged, which is not just about making them happy or busy. It’s about ensuring employees have what they need to work successfully, and that they have the partnerships, opportunities, support and materials to get there. As a result, managers who are good at coaching have learned how to have conversations based on their employee’s strengths, and are engagement-focused.
The more conversations managers have with their employees, the more engaged their employees become. While Gallup research indicates that the frequency of meetings is less important to employees than the fact that they happen at all, engagement is highest among employees who meet with their manager at least once a week. But Gallup found that only 21% of millennials and 18% of non-millennials meet with their manager on a weekly basis. The majority of employees say they meet with their manager as infrequently as less than once a month (56% of millennials and 53% of non-millennials).
Unfortunately, specialists say most managers don’t understand what coaching really is. When asked to coach, many managers engage in a form of consulting. They simply give their team member advice or offer a solution. This is directive and is reflected in their comments like, “First, you do this” and “Why don’t you do this?”
As a result, a resounding 93% of HR respondents in the 2016 SHRM/Globoforce survey thought their managers needed training on how to coach employees. So there is a long way to go.
What’s more, many managers don’t feel comfortable in conforming with these new expectations. To make matters worse, they seldom receive additional support or guidance on how to conduct these conversations effectively. Some managers don’t even think it is part of their job. So how can they be expected to do something they don’t know how to do or believe they shouldn’t be doing at all?
Harvard Business School analysis found the 9 top skills in coaching your team members are:
These skills should be practiced in a safe environment before working with your team members. Such training is essential to develop the right skills, and so coaching skills need to be learnt and refined over time, with the opportunity for participants to reflect on what they have learnt and how their coaching skills are developing. HR should be able to engage managers in coaching training as part of the HR role.
Although experts don’t seem to use the term, a great deal of good workplace coaching involves facilitation, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the act of helping other people to deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved in the process.” Facilitation is about asking people questions that lead them to finding their own solutions rather than telling them the answers.
Facilitation is shown in the above list of top coaching skills as “letting the team member reach their own solution.” This description is a bit simplistic: the employee should be guided to reach their own solution through a process of facilitation, ie through asking them questions.
Insight: Use of facilitation techniques is integral to nearly all the above coaching skills.
I was able to see firsthand how powerful facilitation is when I worked as a business coach for a couple of years in a firm whose work was based on improving client businesses by facilitating planning workshops for them to create better business outcomes. Workshops were based on asking a series of structured questions to the participants, thus leading them through the process of finding their own solutions to their problems – increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of internal and external processes. Participants ranged from all staff in small businesses to relevant staff in big organizations.
All of us, except top leaders, report to someone else. If your boss isn’t a good coach, you can tactfully discuss what you need from them. You can guide them (with some facilitation questions!) so they learn how to coach you and your peers.
Business skills experts advise on how to coach well, or you can read up on it. Here are a couple of helpful Kindle books on coaching:
Also, SABA have produced a helpful, free, 28-page eBook, Your Practical Employee Coaching Playbook, which explains in reader-friendly terms how you can start coaching your direct reports.
Annual performance reviews are not discussed here. They are a separate, but related topic. Annual performance reviews are notoriously ineffective for several reasons. I have been through various ones myself, and found them an awkward and wasteful experience. Managers who have effective performance conversations don’t wait for an annual review to discuss employee needs, successes or opportunities. They are actively involved in the process on a daily basis, as discussed in my article, “How to manage your team’s performance development.”
Here are best-practice tips from Daniel Markovitz, plus experts from Gallup, McKinsey and elsewhere, who explain how to coach well:
1. Establish clear and shared expectations.
The best coaches have conversations with employees to jointly clarify performance needs and define a path forward together. Working with employees to set clear work objectives helps the manager and employee stay aligned with each other, with the team and with the organization.
Insight: These points can help PR employees to better understand the purpose of other employees’ work, and to include this greater awareness into their communication activities.
2. Make time for consistent observation.
Today’s employees require ongoing coaching conversations to perform well. They may include everything from monthly 30-minute evaluations to informal weekly check-ins lasting less than 15 minutes. Even these brief informal conversations, however, need to be meaningful and focused, according to Gallup experts.
Observing your team at work is a good intention, but communicators are always under time pressure. It is difficult to be able to observe team members working during our own daily, deadly deadline pressures. However, the best workplace coaches do incorporate the time to observe their staff doing their normal work, and note what is effective and what is not. Then they engage in short, frequent conversations about improvements, taking care not to cross the line into micromanagement. (Not too frequent, because excessively frequent feedback leads to a decrease in task effort and performance. The best feedback is specific, timely, and tuned to the individual. Experts consider feedback to be one of the key sources of personal growth.
These improvement conversations should also take into account any feedback from the employees’ peers and from the employees themselves about what did and didn’t work for them, according to McKinsey consultants. Other researchers support this: “When people don’t know how they objectively compare with others, they are less likely to put in discretionary effort.”
Insight: The extra time spent in coaching can be offset by streamlining your existing managerial activities, including meetings and some administrative activities. Your team’s increased skills should also enable them to take on some more tasks and free you to spend more time on strategic managerial responsibilities like planning. From these actions, improved individual and team results should start to show.
3. Adopt a longer-term view of employee development.
Rather than coaching mainly for correction, become proactive. Coaching conversations need to be frequent, focused and future-oriented, with feedback on current tasks as the first point of discussion. Ongoing conversations are ultimately about inspiring and energizing employees for the future – not micromanaging their work.
Experts recommend that in these discussions you should discuss employees’ task performance first, and then their personal development targets. Focusing on performance targets relates to more immediate and specific matters than personal development targets.
Treat each person as a lifetime employee, and consider the skills likely to be needed over an entire career. Similar to sports coaching – it’s not just about winning the next game or race – it’s for the longer term, to build more complex skills.
Ask questions that expand the conversation. For instance, you can ask a direct report to articulate some of her long-term goals, and then follow up with questions like: What steps are necessary to get there? and What do you think the best next step would be? Another useful question would be something like What about the future you want would be different from the present? How would you best capitalize on the future opportunities that will arise? Etc. Getting the employee to actively imagine her own growth and create a better future can produce self-motivation that leads to rapid, lasting behavior change. This is facilitation in action.
4. Create accountability that is fair and accurate, as well as developmental and achievement-oriented.
Holding employees accountable for their work, their team contributions and their value to the organization is still essential. How to hold them accountable is what needs to change, according to Gallup experts. Effective progress reviews use metrics and evaluation practices that accurately reflect employees’ work and recognize their achievements. Managers find vignettes or case studies of what worked and what didn’t in other areas and organizations. These appear to be effective in showing employees how to improve their methods.
Maintain short notes about each coaching conversation with an employee, including the date. This enables you to keep perspective on their progress and emphasis on skills needing further development. Then review periodically for each employee in a structured way – perhaps monthly – to ensure development goals are kept in mind as a priority.
Employee recognition is essential. People need to supplement their internal motivation with the assurance of recognition for good work as external motivation. Praise them face-to-face and in front of their peers.
Insight: Greater awareness of good recognition practices in their workplace will create the extra benefit of prompting PR staffers to promote recognition as a desirable activity throughout the organization.
5. Create a long-term learning plan.
Aim at strategically building skills and experiences. Communicate to your team members that in building up their skills they will become more capable and motivated. Research has found about 87% of employees say they want to be developed in their job, but only a third say they actually receive the feedback they need to engage and improve.
In the communication field, these more strategic skills include problem-solving ability, planning skills, social skills, critical thinking, and professional judgement. The beauty of these broad skills is that you can help all your team members to learn them. These higher-level skills will remain valuable and adaptable to new roles in your workplace and in any new workplaces where your employees go in future.
Insight: By becoming more aware of the importance of building strategic skills, your staff can use suitable examples of employees using new-found skills in their workplaces to communicate around the organization. Your staff can talk with managers and employees from other areas to identify such opportunities.
6. Connect the employee’s development with your organization’s goals and results.
Most employee coaching focuses on the benefits for the individual learner rather than also showing the benefits to their team and the organization. In view of this, make sure you also discuss the organizational implications. Time and effort in establishing the connection is worthwhile for the employee’s sense of achievement and purpose. Facilitate with questions that lead to the employee’s greater awareness and understanding that increasing value is the main driver of all actions in business environments. Show how individual’s goals are important to the achievement of your organization’s objectives and strategies.
Insight: Increasing the PR staffer’s horizons to the organizational perspective means they are more likely to refer to the bigger picture in their internal and external communications.
At the end of the day, you don’t win unless your team does.
Quantum Workplace recommend using this type of worksheet below for coaching meetings. You can modify it to suit your purposes:
If it is clear you have an employee who is under-performing, how do you bring them up to speed? The first step is to sit down and talk about their under-performance with them during a one-on-one meeting. Rather than thinking you know the answer/s, the best action is to ask them non-intrusive questions that will bring daylight to the issue. In a 2018 article, Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team, recommends asking these questions, where relevant:
Questions to ask yourself
You’re trying to figure out: “How have I been letting this person down? How have I been getting in the way?”
Questions to ask your employee
You’re trying to figure out: “What on the employee’s end is limiting them?” “What choices or capabilities of their own are keeping them from the results you want to see?”:
None of these questions asks, “What do you think you’re doing wrong?” or “What do you think I’m doing wrong?” The point of these questions is not to be accusatory, either way. Your goal is to reach a place of better understanding. By approaching the conversation with an under-performing employee with questions to ask, rather than answers or directives to insert, you create space for that employee to want to do something different – to actually change and improve. This intention is the best result.
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