When asked about coaching employees, most bosses will claim a) they don’t have time to coach employees because they’ve got a million other things to do or b) they’ve tried coaching and employees ignore them.
The problem is that while managers may believe these statements to be accurate, they’re not actually true.
While a Corporate Executive Board study finds that the average manager has at least 12 direct reports (compared to only seven before the Great Recession), these managers still can find time to coach because it only takes five to 10 minutes a day, says Michael Bungay Stanier.
As for the second assertion about employees who ignore managers attempting to coach them? Well, that’s simply because managers are often terrible coaches, says Bungay Stanier, the senior partner and founder of Box of Crayons.
“The reason more managers don’t embrace coaching is because from our earliest school days, we are rewarded for having the right answer,” Bungay Stanier says. “So managers think they have to always give the answers.”
The problem is that when managers provide all the answers, then employees have little incentive to think deeper or more creatively to find their own solutions. “It actually feels good to give advice, which is why bosses like to do it,” he says. “They will do it even if it’s the wrong advice or the other person isn’t listening.”
This creates even more dependence on the manager, which leads to bosses feeling even more overwhelmed and disconnected from the bigger picture of what a company is trying to accomplish, he says.
What is more difficult for managers to embrace – but critical to good coaching – is to ask more questions. “It’s tough because it’s more ambiguous and the boss feels like he’s giving up control,” says Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever.”
“The boss may be worried he’s going to get a crazy answer when he asks a question, or maybe he believes he’s not adding value” unless he’s providing answers, Bungay Stanier says.
But by asking some simple questions, managers whittle their coaching time to as little as five or 10 minutes a day, help guide employees into working smarter and provide a “powerful daily form of leadership,” he says.
“I think there’s this myth that coaching is this touchy-feely human resources thing or that it takes a lot of time,” he says. “It’s neither of those things. It’s about meaningful conversations.”
Bungay Stanier says he knows that it can be difficult for managers to make coaching a daily habit – especially those who might head up teams populated by introverts or who are themselves more comfortable using email or texts to communicate.
That’s why he’s provided seven questions to help leaders – or even other team members – to communicate better. “This works with customers, peers and even bosses,” he says. “We need to stop giving this the big label of coaching and instead looking at it as just staying curious longer.”
The questions that need to be asked are:
- “What’s on your mind?” This is called the “kickstart question” by Bungay Stanier because it’s just enough to invite people to get to the heart of what may be bothering them about a work issue. Leaders then ask a follow-up to determine if the problem is the project, the people involved or perhaps their own performance. All those areas can eventually be discussed, but asking just one question is a “little pressure-release valve” that helps the employee crystallize a problem that may be bothering him or her.
- “And what else?” Bungay Stanier says this can be important, because it helps buy the boss time while she tries to figure out what’s going on with the employee. It’s a good idea to ask this question about three to five times during a conversation, because it helps the employee dig deeper and get to the root of the problem. When the boss feels the issue has been thoroughly aired, she can say, “Anything else?” This helps keep the conversation focused on the challenge without it devolving into a gripe session about unrelated issues. “It lets the employee know you’re creating boundaries and are focused on the specific challenge,” he says.
- “What’s the real challenge here for you?” This question prevents the person from pontificating about abstract challenges and keeps him focused on what he needs to figure out.
- “What do you want?” Asking such a question helps the person feel that you’re not dictating what he should do, but rather helping him solve a challenge. The person will feel a greater sense of autonomy, security and the feeling that you are on his side.
- “How can I help?” Bungay Stanier refers to this as the “lazy” question because it forces the person to make a clear and direct request, and it stops you from assuming you know best and providing the answer. While some managers may be leery of asking such a question, Bungay Stanier says they need to remember that they can always say “no” to a request or provide an alternative.
- “If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?” This is a strategic question, and should look at issues such as how your resources will be focused, the capabilities that need to be in place and what management systems are required.
- “What was most useful for you?” “Listen to the answer you get, because it’s useful not just for the coachee but for you as well,” he says. “It will give you guidance on what to do more of next time, and it will reassure you that you’re being useful even when you’re not giving advice but are asking questions instead.”
Finally, remember that it may be uncomfortable at first to ask such questions and to not immediately offer advice. Over time, however, the payoff will be happier and more productive employees who contribute to more targeted solutions and learn to dig deeper for better answers.