Ask better questions. Listen deeply to the answers. Help your team figure it out for themselves.
This leadership advice is widely recognized. Best-selling leadership books provide exactly the right questions to ask in order to empower teams to discover their own answers. And yet, when deadlines slip or decisions get stuck, even the best leaders will revert to the default behavior: talking, talking and more talking…
Leader Signals—the minute-by-minute cues all leaders send about how people should behave—are a particular focus of our research. More and more, informed leaders are trying to adopt a coaching approach because they know that it is the key to both employee engagement and empowerment. But it’s harder than it sounds. Let’s take a look at why:
We believe there are two primary reasons:
The first is pragmatic: time.
Helping someone find the answers for themselves happens much more slowly than telling them what to do. And most executives are far too busy, at least in their own minds, to have time for such a protracted conversation. Particularly in the era of fast communication—text messages, IMs, and curt emails—it seems ridiculous to even consider the coaching approach.
“Should I sign off on John’s request?” texts the employee.
“What do you see as the pros and cons of doing so?” texted back no manager ever.
The second and much more significant barrier is mindset.
In order to invest the energy to use a coaching approach, a leader must believe two things:
- Each person on the team is naturally resourceful, creative and whole. This belief is the essence of what Carol Dweck calls the Growth Mindset. The growth mindset is that everyone is capable of development and likely has more internal wisdom than they realize. Helping the team learn, from this frame, is the leader’s most important role. Typically, however, organizations have operated from the Fixed mindset which asserts you either have potential or you don’t. You’re either a high performer or you’re not. From this mindset, it’s a waste of time to coach employees. They are never going to figure it out. Your role as a manager is to instruct them rather than to help them learn, so telling them the answers is the only kind of choice.
- The second belief that inhibits coaching is about the role of a leader. For years, we’ve been taught that the leader is out front. Great leaders are omniscient beings who singlehandedly drive a company’s performance. When leaders ask questions, it’s a signal that they don’t have all the answers. Particularly because the rise to leadership is all about performance, it’s a significant transition to conceptualize your team as your primary work output. It requires the belief that “If I invest in the team, the results will come.” Even leaders who believe that statement still find it challenging to put it into practice.
So how can you start transitioning from a leader who tells to a leader who coaches? Here are three ways to get started:
- Dedicate at least 30 minutes per week to giving each of your direct reports your full attention. It doesn’t need to be a calendared one-on-one meeting. You could host office hours and encourage your team to drop by. You could drink your morning coffee in the same place every day and let the team know you’re always open to company. Whatever mechanism you use, make sure to block time for it on your calendar and hold that time sacred.
- Keep a list of high quality questions close at hand. As you are adopting this new posture, it’s helpful to have a cheat sheet to reinforce your intentions. High quality questions are neither leading nor entirely open-ended. An example of a good coaching question is, “What are you struggling with right now?” Listen intently to the answer and to prevent yourself from starting to problem-solve for him or her, ask, “What else?”
- Declare your intention to your team. When you first begin asking questions rather than providing answers, your team is likely to be suspicious. They may think you are testing them, ready to pounce when they don’t get it “right.” Telling them in advance that your new stance is one of coaching will make the transition to this new relationship a bit less abrupt. They’ll also help keep you honest if you begin backsliding into old patterns.
The choice to coach rather than command is a long-term strategy. Taking the extra time will ultimately build the problem-solving skills of your team. And, they may surprise you with the genius they already possess.