Wed | Jul 17, 2019

Three tests for effective coaching

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade

Francis Wade, Sunday business COLUMNIST

As a manager, it's hard to give good feedback. Most of our attempts fall flat, and employees end up confused, ultimately changing none of their behaviours.

It's a shame, because the instances when we have received skilful and not-so-skilful feedback are both likely to be remembered forever; these sessions are almost impossible to forget when they are done well, or badly. They can be career changers, milestones or major turning points.

Unskilled feedback has many causes, and in a prior column on May 13, 2012, I highlighted the lack of live practice as an important contributor.

Another reason managers don't do the job well - delaying the conversation for as long as possible - is that they don't have a good way to prepare the right message?

Too often, managers judge a feedback conversation to be a success because their employees don't get upset. Employees, however, might be left completely confused, having no idea how to implement what they just heard.

When employees aren't clear, the long-term result is obvious: The desired change cannot happen.

Many managers blame them for being lazy or lacking motivation, when the truth is that they just don't know where to start. These failed feedback sessions are more like meet-ups between foreigners who don't share a common language than management conversations.

Here's how you can fulfil the high potential such meetings represent, in the form of three tests. To prepare for them, plan to deliver the feedback live, preferably face-to-face. Email should be a rare, last resort. In either case, writing out your words beforehand helps achieve a certain level of mental clarity, which aids in passing these tests.

1. The Video Test

All constructive feedback is, in essence, a request for the other party to change. Before the session, get some clarity on the actual behaviour change by testing whether or not it could be captured by video if it were a success.

Your words need to paint a picture that's practical and visible. If you don't have that degree of understanding before the conversation, return to the drawing board to refine your advice until the actions you want the person to take are clear.

Otherwise, you will create confusion and fail this test miserably.

2. The Fool Yourself Test

Make sure that the behaviour you intend to see is so clear to recipients that they can't fool themselves into thinking they are demonstrating it when they aren't. For example, someone may interpret your advice to 'improve your attitude' to mean that they should adopt a silly smile while leaving the office each day, tricking them into believing that this is what the new behaviour means.

Also, I often work with employees who have been told to improve their time-management skills without being given detailed information.

Research shows that time cannot actually be managed, rendering the advice impotent for even the most motivated employee who may honestly believe they are being productive.

There should be no ambiguity - drive it out with careful preparation.

3. The Trainable Test

The final test is one that requires some honesty. Managers shouldn't bother to give feedback which can't be converted into coaching or training.

If your suggestions aren't comprised of actions which can be taught to another person because they are too complex, nebulous or theoretical, then the chances are good that they will fail.

They won't translate into a realistic plan employees can use to better themselves, and you'll be left in the awkward position of telling them nothing has changed when you follow up later. You might even point a finger at them, when in fact you haven't done your job as their coach.

Experts indicate that the best way to transfer a new behaviour is to break it down into small steps. Employees can't be trusted to do this for themselves - after all, they are the ones who are struggling by lacking the desired behaviour.

It's up to you, as the boss, to decompose big changes before the conversation starts so that employees can learn them in small bites. This will help them move from one success to another as they implement your suggestions.

Converting what you want to see, as an end result, so it passes these three tests isn't easy, but it's a skill which all managers must master in order to increase the odds that their employees succeed.

While these tests aren't taught in business school, they do need to be a part of your toolbox if you are serious about building a high-performance team in which each person is continuously helping the other to improve.

Following these tests will make your feedback sessions memorable for the right reasons, and you'll be known as a great manager who cares about employee development.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: