Coach 'Em Up

To develop engaged employees, be more of a coach than a commander.

So you feel like your employees aren’t leaving it all on the workplace playing field every day? Not giving it 110 percent between the cubicles? Unwilling to do what it takes to win?

Wes Pruett has a suggestion: Try being a little less of a commander-in-chief and a little more of a coach.

“Many people don’t understand the engagement process,” says Pruett, the owner of HR Advisors ( and a human resources and employee-coaching consultant. “They view their position as more of a master-and-commander kind of thing, where they give direction and make decisions.

“While that’s certainly true, they sometimes miss the point of involving and engaging employees … getting them involved in those decisions, too,” he adds. “A lot of managers just don’t see the connection between employee engagement and performance and how to get them engaged. That’s where (employee) coaching comes in.”

For many of us, the word “coaching” conjures up images of a fiery Vince Lombardi or Knute Rockne, firing up players with inspiring pre-game or halftime talks. While that may well work in the sporting world, the workplace arena requires something quite different, Pruett says.

“They’re very different things,” he explains. “Coaching in sports is often about training and education … and about motivating players. But coaching in the workplace often isn’t about that. It makes an assumption that an individual is capable and that your job is to help them kind of figure out what they need to do and how they should do it.

“So you’re helping them develop critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills­,” he adds. “It’s about developing independent thinking and autonomy.”

Benefits abound

Allowing employees to make decisions on their own — with your support — can yield many benefits. For starters, just telling people what to do disempowers them and makes them feel devalued, while independence and autonomy makes them feel more valued.

Empowered employees also buy in to projects and assignments; it’s easier for employees to commit to something they’ve had a hand in deciding. In addition, it’s also easier to hold them accountable for results. Moreover, studies show that employees value engagement and empowerment over money, in terms of how they impact job satisfaction.

How do you get command-and-control managers to buy into the concept of coaching? After all, most managers didn’t develop their management styles overnight, and en-trenched habits are hard to break. Pruett suggests appealing to their sensibilities by asking them how they’d want to be led: micro-managed or empowered? Or appeal to their sense of what’s best for their company or organization. And it’ll get easier after they begin to see results from their new coaching approach to management.

“One of your jobs as a manager is to develop your employees and find your replacement, and this is a purposeful way to do that,” Pruett says. “Some people feel threatened by that concept. But for most people, they just lack the skill — no one ever taught them.

“When they get a chance to learn coaching skills, they do remarkably well,” he continues. “All of sudden, they see that it works, that it actually can make their life better.”

Basic skill requirements

Pruett says effective coaching requires six basic skills:

  • 1. A good manager-employee relationship. If you don’t trust each other, coaching will be ineffective.
  • 2. Great listening ability. Good coaching is 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking.
  • 3. Asking thought-provoking questions. Pose questions that make people reflect on or analyze their situation, so they can make effective decisions. For example, instead of asking an employee how they spent a day, ask him or her how they could have been more effective. This spurs some internal evaluation and engages thinking skills.
  • 4. Effective strategizing. When you assign a project, don’t tell employees what to do. Instead, talk about the best ways to complete it — discuss resources needed, deadlines, potential obstacles, etc.
    “It’s like a roadmap,” Pruett points out. “Often there are one thousand ways to get to the same endpoint. But it’s your job to help them figure out that best way for them and for the company.”
  • 5. Provide feedback. Challenge employees’ assumptions and point out any inconsistencies in their approach to a project. Moreover, hold them accountable — pin them down to making a commitment.
  • 6. Offer encouragement. This is particularly important for employees who resist change and may not feel comfortable in their new, more-engaged role.

“Just give them a pat on the back,” Pruett suggests. “Sometimes it’s as simple as giving them permission … or helping them believe in themselves. Just don’t encourage them to do something way beyond their skill level.”

All six skills are entwined, Pruett notes; none of them stand alone. And learning these skills, as well as changing your management style from a drill sergeant to a coach, may take some time.

“But if you make an honest effort, starting with a sincere desire to do what’s best for employees, these skills will take you a long way down the road toward maximizing the effectiveness of your employees,” he concludes.


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