Communication Breakdown: Managing a Coaching Session

Over the years, the main complaint I’ve heard from ex-employees centers around a breakdown in communication with their direct supervisor.  They didn’t know what was expected of them.  They didn’t realize they were under-performing.  They felt unsure about how to ask for help.  Their supervisor didn’t care about them or their success.  There was no clarity.  When managers are presented with this feedback, they’re usually shocked, and make statements like: I was very clear on what I expected, or my team knows how much I care.  So why the disconnect?  As David Mann laid out in his course for lawyers on advanced storytelling and persuasion techniques,

“It’s more about what they’ll hear and not what you’ll say.  Though this sounds incredibly simple, it’s actually quite counter-intuitive.  We tend to prepare what we say as though we’ll be speaking to ourselves- or someone who thinks like us.  But that is rarely the case.  It is critical to orient your words and ideas to the listener.”   

Solid communication is arguably the most vital skill a manager brings to the table.  So why is it so difficult for many, and where are they missing the mark?  I believe the primary challenge is that communication is rarely a focus of employee training and generally, once an employee ascends to the role of manager, any training on communication all but ceases.  But the title of manager alone doesn’t magically bless someone with excellent communication skills.  As with all other skills, instruction and practice are required.   Over the next several articles, we’ll explore methods and pointers geared fostering great communication in the workplace.  We’ll start with a look at the coaching sessions.   

Coaching sessions can prove challenging for even the seasoned manager.  Discussing performance issues can be daunting.  It’s also easy to bombard the employee with one-way communication thus preventing constructive and vitally important dialogue from occurring.  Below I outline the steps to take when approaching an employee coaching.

COACHING SESSION STEPS

Start with the who, what, when, and why of the practice/process on which you’re coaching.

Example:  Sarah, you made 215 phone calls last week which was 85% of your call quota.  You were out for three hours on Thursday afternoon which caused your Thursday call numbers to be low. 

Dive further into the why.

I’ve noted that you’ve had multiple personal issues causing you to be out of the office on at least one occasion during three of four weeks this month.  This resulted in you missing your call quota during two of those weeks.  When you’re on time and work your full shift, you always manage to meet your quota.

Reestablish expectations and responsibilities.  A written job description should be used as a reference.

Let’s review the expectations for your role.  One of your primary responsibilities is hitting your call quotas each week.  While our company does offer PTO to allow employees time off to attend to personal matters, your frequent outages are causing you to fall short of the expectations for your position. 

Present a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) with a set timeline where applicable.  Some useful techniques used in a PIP include: recycling the employee through training on the area of concern, practice sessions with a supervisor which allow the employee to get immediate feedback on performance, scheduled check-ins along the timeline to update the employee on their progress, testing on skills, peer-to-peer shadowing with a top performer, and recommended external training (workshops, courses, and reading).

In this instance, absence is what is causing this shortcoming; so the focus should be on helping the employee understand how their outages impact their performance and overall standing in the company.  It may be useful to discuss better use of PTO (spacing out usage, scheduling personal appointments for non-work hours, consideration of alternate work schedules if available, etc.).  While the company’s leave policy may not have been violated, the employee’s absence is still causing an issue.

Ask questions to determine any additional reasons for poor performance and obtain employee buy-in.

Do you understand the expectations and responsibilities tied to your role?  Do you see how being out of the office regularly is preventing you from hitting your call quotas?    Are there any issues I should be aware of that may also be contributing to you missing your call quota?  Are there any other concerns you’re having with your role?  How do you plan to correct this issue moving forward?

 

Employees perceive much more about a leader’s intention from non-verbal cues than from the words themselves.  It’s always important to consider this when speaking with employees, particularly when correcting performance issues, conducting training, or presenting a write-up.  While the preparation of the coaching session is systematic, the delivery shouldn’t be cold or robotic.  The goal isn’t merely to disseminate information but to have a conversation. According to Mann,

“93% of what is being perceived [by the employee] is coming from the face, body, and voice.  The human face has tens of thousands of subtle combinations of eye, mouth, and brow movement that are all associated with certain intentions.  Likewise, the human voice has a virtually limitless capacity for expression using combinations of tone, pace, and volume.  And tiny shifts of the shoulders, arm, legs, and hands can communicate enormous amounts of meaning.” 

Pay attention; sometimes this unspoken 93% can distract from or contradict what you’re saying and elicit an unwanted response.

 THE LANGUAGE OF A COACHING SESSION

Delivery is relaxed and encourages conversation.  Your goal is to facilitate dialogue to reach an understanding.

Body language is open and attentive.  The right body language encourages a better response. Be present. Maintain eye contact and eliminate all distractions like your cell phone, workplace messengers, or emails. Be ready to listen as well as talk.  Listen with your face (nods, raising eyebrows, eye expression, smiles).  Eliminate fidgeting. 

Tone is calm and confident.  Remove anger, blame, or panicked language from your delivery.

Pacing is measured.  Don’t rush; leave pauses to allow the employee to comment or interject. 

Allow for discussion.  If the employee presents a reason for their performance for which you weren’t prepared, hear the employee out and ask numerous questions to ensure you fully understand their side.  If you aren’t prepared to offer a solution on the spot, it’s okay to circle back after you’ve had time to think/research. 

Serve up a compliment sandwich.  The employee has some redeeming qualities, or you wouldn’t have hired her or be investing the time to coach toward improvement.  Make sure you layer comments about her potential or her positive performance into the conversation to soften the sometimes sharp edges of a PIP.  This helps keep the employee focused and positive and shows them that you also see and appreciate what they do well. 

Sarah, you do such a great job of speaking with the customers.  Your approach is friendly and professional. That’s why it’s so important to me that we get you on the phone with more customers!  Let’s focus on making sure you hit your call quota every week by addressing these attendance issues.

Practice!  Think about an employee coaching session as a presentation or performance.  You wouldn’t walk on stage without knowing your lines.  Your delivery is key to successful coaching.  Learning how to manage your face, body, gestures and vocal inflections is a skill.  Skills take practice.

Remember, putting an employee on a PIP or holding a coaching session is a serious and vital part of a manager’s job.  The employee can come out of the meeting feeling focused and ready to tackle the challenge or beat down and demotivated.  The manager’s delivery largely determines which it will be. It’s not always easy to effectively engage employees, but a good manager recognizes the importance his or her communication plays in the success of the larger organization.   

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