Establishing a Coaching Relationship with Subordinates

Developmental coaching is an embodiment of the often-stated organizational value that "Our people are our greatest asset."

MOST people agree coaching is an essential part of managing and leading people, but doing so can be fraught with difficulties. The authority of the coach/boss over the employee and the potential for the supervisor's interests to differ from the individuals' interests are critical factors to consider. Dealing in a straightforward and realistic fashion with these difficulties is essential to establishing the trusting relationship within which real learning and development can take place.

Performance Management vs. Developmental Coaching
Prior to doing any coaching, be careful to distinguish between performance management and developmental coaching.

Performance management is an effort to maximize the employee's contributions to organizational goals by measuring her performance as objectively as possible, providing feedback, and developing strategies together to improve this performance. Developmental coaching is an effort to develop the employee's capacity to meet his own goals, where the coach operates in service to the employee's interests.

When the employee is highly motivated to succeed within the organization, performance management and developmental coaching often will look similar. On the other hand, when the employee is dealing with significant personal issues, seeking better work/life balance, or considering alternative career paths, performance management and developmental coaching diverge, and can even conflict. Here, the organization's goals (keep the employee, get the employee to model commitment) may conflict with the employee's goals (get a different job, be home with kids in the evening.) When we also consider the authority and power the supervisor has over the employee, the potential for misunderstandings and mistrust is even more apparent.

How to Succeed in Developmental Coaching
In order for developmental coaching to be successful in a supervisory relationship, the coach must meet four conditions:

  • The goals of the boss must not be in conflict with the personal and professional goals of the subordinate, or the boss must be able to place other considerations temporarily in the background in order to support the dedication of the coaching, in good faith, to the best interests of the subordinate.
  • The subordinate must be motivated to make a commitment to learning and development for reasons of his or her own.
  • Both parties must be able and willing to draw distinctions between the coaching aspect of their relationship and others, separating the development process from power issues and supervisory consequences.
  • The boss and subordinate must trust each other that the first three conditions are present.

If any of these conditions is not present, the supervisor will have a difficult time coaching the subordinate and may need to find a different means to provide development support for the subordinate. If the two parties meet these conditions, they can build a real coaching relationship dedicated to the employee's growth.

Ultimately, the employee must decide whether the relationship is trustworthy, because coaching imposed on employees rarely works. Going through the motions of coaching without real openness and investment on the part of the employee does not create the conditions for development.

Why Developmental Coaching?
Developmental coaching is an embodiment of the often-stated organizational value that "Our people are our greatest asset." Often, organizations deal with their greatest assets with excruciating workloads, stress, and unrealistic deadlines. The bottom line is that any organization can only meet its goals to the degree that people make them happen.

Morale, achievement, and commitment all relate closely to the perception that the boss understands and responds to the employee's individual needs. Developmental coaching, then, is a way for any manager to send the message that employees truly are the company's most important assets. While this is also a matter of the larger organizational culture, any supervisor or manager can greatly influence this perception within his or her department or business unit.

Here are examples of some fruitful areas that developmental coaching often addresses:

  • Developing a specific, job-related competency that will help the employee achieve his or her career objectives, whether inside or outside his or her current job.
  • Managing time and priorities more effectively in order to achieve better life balance.
  • Exploring alternative career paths and career development strategies.
  • Developing strategies to deal with office politics and difficult people.
  • Recognizing and managing difficult emotions in the workplace.
  • Clarifying the employee's long- and medium-term life and career goals.

Managers who are coaching direct reports need to set aside a special time and circumstance for the coaching aspect of their relationship. The supervisor and the subordinate can then place their relationship issues in the background and concentrate on the subordinate's development. During this process, you may find it useful to ask yourself: "If my coaching leads to my employee leaving the company, will I have served the organization?" If the answer is no, you may find it difficult to really serve the employee's learning needs. If yes, you probably recognize that keeping dissatisfied people in the company doesn't serve either the company or the employee. Either way, asking yourself the question will help discern your real objectives in coaching.

Getting the Best from Developmental Coaching
Paying attention to a few practical guidelines can greatly increase the probabilities that real developmental coaching will work. These guidelines are:

  • Invite your employee into a coaching relationship. Discuss with him that you'd like to make some time available to him to support his learning in areas that are of interest to him. Offer to be a support and a resource to him, and make the distinction that you are focusing on his learning and objectives. Don't be put off if the employee appears skeptical or doesn't immediately jump on the opportunity. It may take a while to build trust; be willing to start small.
  • Ask the employee how you can be most helpful, and encourage her to define what she needs from you. When the employee begins to define the territory that the conversation will cover, she develops ownership in the process and begins to experience you as a support and resource, rather than as a boss.
  • Be clear in your own mind, and explicit with the employee, that these coaching conversations are for the development of the employee. Reinforce that there will be no organizational consequences for what is shared in these conversations. The employee may be hesitant to trust this at first. Maintaining the integrity and trust that the employee places in you is critical to building a robust coaching relationship.

Of course, you must be candid and willing to say if you don't believe you can be helpful in a specific area. Sometimes you may not feel knowledgeable in a particular area, and you may need to connect your employee to others inside or outside the organization who can be helpful resources. On rare occasions, a coaching discussion may stray into personal areas that you are not trained to handle. In these situations, you may need to discuss with your employee whether a referral to an employee assistance program or an outside resource is appropriate.

As openness to this new kind of relationship develops, work out the details of structure (frequency, duration of conversations, location, etc.) in ways that are agreeable to both. Again, start small and go for early, small successes. Be clear with each other what's on the table for discussion and what's not.

Give your employee evidence of your support for her. When situations occur that challenge your agreement or require you to distinguish between serving organizational and employee goals, it can be reassuring for the employee to hear how you handled them.

Seek opportunities to present your employee with choice points--opportunities to discuss either of a couple of different topics or lines of discussion. Making choices puts the employee in charge of the conversation and demonstrates that you are in service to his needs.

Provide feedback and encouragement when you see the employee is taking responsibility for shaping the coaching process. The employee's awareness of this subtext of the coaching relationship is key. Helping him become aware of ways in which he is defining his development needs and asking for support is empowering.

While developmental coaching isn't possible within every supervisory relationship, the loyalty and learning that can result make it well worth exploring. To do it successfully, you and the employee will need to undergo a mind shift. Realize that this mind shift is not automatic and will develop over time. Once the shift occurs, however, you will become a support and resource for the employee, and you will learn how to put your role as representative of organizational authority on hold. While this type of coaching does require work, the rewards of this redefined relationship are enormous. Try it today.

This column appeared in the March 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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