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How Managers Can Excel by Really Coaching Their Employees

How Managers Can Excel by Really Coaching Their Employees

by Ben Wigert and Annamarie Mann
Chart: data points are described in article

Can we talk?

The answer to that simple question may have a profound impact on how employees are managed, now and into the foreseeable future.

It's certainly a question that front-line managers will have to answer if they want to get the most out of today's workforce.

The problem is, recent Gallup research finds that only about one in four employees "strongly agree" that their manager provides meaningful feedback to them -- or that the feedback they receive helps them do better work. Even more alarming is that a mere 21% of employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

Many organizations know they have a serious problem with performance management -- and they have already started to re-engineer their approaches. One big step that companies are taking is to place far greater importance on more frequent, ongoing performance conversations between the manager and the employee.

Those organizations know that managers and employees need to talk to each other more -- a lot more -- and much more frequently than during annual or even semiannual reviews.

Many Managers Struggle With Frequent Conversations

While we know that stepping up the frequency of these conversations is crucial, there is a huge caveat: Gallup's research and experience with clients suggest many managers actually struggle in this area.

In talking with leaders who are beginning to make this shift, we find overwhelming agreement that more frequent conversations between the manager and employee are important. But in our work and discussions with managers, we've seen that many don't feel comfortable assuming these new expectations or that they haven't received additional support or guidance about how to have these conversations effectively. Some managers don't even consider it part of their job, which begs the question: Are companies setting managers up to fail by asking them to do something they either don't know how to do or believe they shouldn't be doing at all?

The answer has serious implications for companies, as managers have the greatest impact on driving performance and engagement within their teams. Managers need to be at the heart of changing traditional performance management approaches.

Help Managers Shift to a Performance Development Approach

Gallup's recent report on re-engineering performance management notes that companies are shifting from traditional performance management practices to a new approach that focuses on performance development. Essentially, this shift requires managers to create an ongoing dialogue about performance that is individualized to the needs and unique talents of each employee.

To master this new approach, managers must take ownership of their employees' development and think of themselves in a new way: as a coach, not a boss. This approach also requires that leaders take ownership of manager development to teach them how to be effective coaches.

Equip your managers to lead effective performance conversations.
Use Gallup's easy-to-use framework for delivering frequent feedback.

Great coaches aren't hard to spot. They 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.

These coaches also know that their team members need to be engaged, which is not just about making employees happy. It's about ensuring that employees have what they need to be successful in their roles and that they have the partnerships, opportunities, support and materials to get there. To this end, managers who excel at coaching have learned how to lead strengths-based and engagement-focused conversations.

The best coaches also know how to make the most out of their interactions. From an employee's first day on the job to quick check-ins to formal progress discussions, managers who have effective performance conversations aren't waiting for an annual review to discuss employee needs, successes or opportunities. They are actively involved in the process, day in and day out.

Here's what the best coaches do in those conversations:

  1. Establish expectations that are clear, collaborative and aligned with the organization's goals. As quickly as the workplace moves today, employees can become confused when there are conflicting priorities and shifting goals. The best coaches have collaborative dialogues with employees to clarify performance needs and define a path forward together. Working with employees to set clear objectives helps the manager and employee stay aligned with each other, with the team and with the organization.

  2. Have frequent, focused and future-oriented coaching conversations. To some employees, "We're going to have frequent coaching conversations" can feel an awful lot like "I'm going to be micromanaged." But there's a fine line between frequent contact and micromanagement -- and managers need to learn how to walk this line. Conversations have to be frequent, focused and future-oriented, even if they include tough feedback on current projects. Ongoing conversations are ultimately about inspiring and energizing employees for the future -- not breathing down their necks and constantly checking on their work.

  3. 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 clients is still essential. How to hold them accountable is what needs to change. Effective progress reviews don't just focus on ratings, pay and promotions. They use metrics and evaluation practices that accurately reflect employees' work and recognize their achievements. Effective reviews also incorporate development goals.

When managers learn how to have strengths-based and engagement-focused conversations aimed at achieving the core principles of performance development, manager-employee interactions feel more encouraging, purposeful and rewarding than the typical annual review. For some managers, this comes naturally. Others may require more help.

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