6 Practices to Create a Coaching Culture in Your Organization

6 Practices to Create a Coaching Culture in Your Organization

It’s no secret that the face of the global workforce is changing and that the approaches taken by leaders and managers must evolve with it. There are about 8 million baby boomers working in Canada today and they started retiring three years ago. They are exiting the workforce in vast numbers and there is only half that number of Gen Xers (age 38–50) to replace them. On the heels of Gen X is Gen Y, or Millennials (age 19-37), the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and unique in many ways from other generations. Some companies are already adjusting to these demographic changes, however, many companies are unprepared and are in for a shock as competition intensifies for increasingly scarce talent and skill shortages show up at all levels. 

Increasing competition means increasing turnover and problems with retaining key talent. If your company routinely manages employee turnover between 10 and 15 per cent, you can expect a new normal of up to 30 per cent and higher for some jobs. One 2013 human resources survey cites 70 per cent of respondent’s selected “retaining talent” as their top challenge. Other reports show that most executives expect talent retention to be a major issue.

With employee turnover at these levels, the issue of high (and often underestimated) costs of employee turnover is being eclipsed by the greater threat of business continuity. It’s now about losing the people who are key to the essential functions of your company. However, traditional employee retention methods are no longer adequate. If you’re facing a war for talent, you must be good at keeping and developing the people you have.

A survey by the Human Resources Institute of Alberta earlier this year found that the most common practices used by companies to reduce resignations were better onboarding, flexible work arrangements, improved wages and benefits and more teambuilding events. All of these are important employee retention strategies, yet many executives still say their employee retention efforts are not working. Carrots and Sticks just aren’t enough anymore when it comes to engaging, motivating and retaining today’s changing workforce.

If Carrots and Sticks aren’t Enough, How about a Shift in Approach to Managing the New Workforce?

So what exactly needs to shift? The common still common mindset of managers and leaders is one of “Knowing and Telling”. We suggest a fundamental shift in thinking and in behavior to one of “Asking and Listening”, or what we call taking a Coach Approach to managing people. It’s very learnable. It starts with the conversations that managers have with employees every day. These are the greatest, and often most overlooked opportunities for changing the manager-employee relationship. When handled well, these interactions are where managers build trust, involve, engage, motivate, performance manage, develop, recognize, and ultimately retain people.

How Does the Business Benefit when Managers use a Coach Approach?

Organizations that encourage curiosity and inquiry are “learning organizations” or “thinking organizations” which tend to be characterized by free-flowing information, inviting new ideas, effective communication, ongoing feedback, self-leadership, empowerment, inclusion, shared responsibility, mutual accountability and shared ownership of results. Ultimately, when managers lead through inquiry, they share problems and the accountability for finding innovative solutions, which leads to higher engagement and retention. The rapidly changing, global, high tech, knowledge based business environments of today make it impossible for managers to know all the information or have all the answers. Research shows that employee performance improves and business results are stronger in companies that support a coaching culture.

Our Coach Approach is based on the core competencies of Executive Coaching. We define 6 accessible and learnable practices managers can develop that will help them shift from “Knowing and Telling” to “Asking and Listening”.

The 6 Practices of a Coach Approach are:

  1. Prepare Yourself
  2. Build Trust
  3. Ask Great Questions
  4. Be a Great Listener
  5. Build on Strengths
  6. Be Candid

Develop these 6 Practices to Build on your Coach Approach as a Leader.

Practice #1: Prepare Yourself
The Coach Approach begins with you. Cultivate your self-awareness, recognize your role in the relationship, and consider how you come across to others. Notice your mindset, perceptions, assumptions, biases, Preparationjudgments, and emotions and be mindful of how these internal processes impact your presence. Do a thorough internal check and make the necessary adjustments in order to align your behavior with your intended outcomes. If you haven’t performed this internal check in advance, your internal dialogue may distract you from being open and fully listening during the conversation. Increasing your self-awareness will improve your confidence and ability to authentically align your actions with your intentions.

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • What inner thoughts, biases, judgments, opinions or assumptions do I notice in myself?
  • What emotions are present and how are they impacting me? What can I do to manage my emotions?
  • How do I want to come across to others and does my behavior match this?

Practice #2: Build Trust
Trust is foundational to all good relationships, personal and professional. Work environments that are supportive, safe, and based on mutual trust and respect allow people to take risks, admit mistakes, and communicate openly and honestly. Building trusting relationships is an ongoing process which means every interaction is an opportunity to do so.

A common misconception is that candid feedback damages trust and it is therefore no surprise that many leaders admit to avoiding candid conversations due to the fear of marring the relationship. In fact, candid feedback and coaching increases trust and respect in relationships, and it can create a virtuous cycle of clear and upfront communication. When trust is high coaching and feedback are part of the day to day norm. Relationships with high levels of trust and respect will lead to more candid feedback and opportunities for coaching and development.

Building and maintaining trust requires consistency in the following traits and behaviors.

Trust Builders

  1. Show sincere concern for the well-being of others. 
  2. Be accountable. Keep your promises. Follow through on your commitments. 
  3. Speak frankly, directly, and honestly. Avoid exaggeration and drama. 
  4. Discuss difficult topics, conflicts, and challenges with candor and compassion. 
  5. Be open, transparent, and real. 
  6. Respect different perceptions and opinions. Be open-minded and listen.
  7. Admit your mistakes, and show that you have learned from them. 
  8. Show humility. Seek feedback from others and show that you value their advice. 
  9. Acknowledge good work and give credit to everyone involved. 
  10. Don’t talk negatively about people behind their backs.

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • Which three of the above trust builders would I like to improve on? 
  • What specifically will I commit to doing differently? 

Practice #3: Ask Great Questions
Asking powerful questions is the cornerstone of all Executive Coaching models. Curiosity coupled with open-ended and insightful questions invites others into the dialogue, encourages participation and exploration of many possibilities, and creates shared ownership and accountability. This increases engagement and motivation of employees.

So what makes a question great? Great questions are open, insightful and challenging while remaining supportive. They spark new ways of thinking, create focus, evoke deep discovery, challenge perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs and open up new possibilities for your employee. They shift the responsibility to the employee and away from manager who may feel they need to have all the solutions. Great questions cause others to think more deeply, to stretch and to break through their limiting thought processes. Some questions are focused inwards, enlightening self-awareness, and others focus beyond the person to a greater context that allows them to explore different perspectives and reframe their situation. Great questions cause people to align their thinking with their desired outcomes, and can bring about powerful action.

Great Question Examples:

  • What is your best thinking on this so far?
  • What have you done in the past that has worked?
  • How are you planning to accomplish your objective? 
  • What are you thinking or feeling but not saying? 
  • What’s most important about that? 
  • What do you think will happen if nothing changes?
  • What do you think will happen if you do make these changes?
  • How do you think others would describe working with you? 
  • What could you do differently next time? 
  • How can I help?

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • In what situations are you more likely to Tell (explain, solve, rationalize, teach) rather than Ask (inquire, explore, understand, empower)?
  • How can you use questions more effectively in those situations?
  • How can you start conversations by asking instead of telling?

Practice #4: Be a Great Listener 
One of the most common challenges with listening is our impulse to speak! Despite our best efforts we talk more than we listen, and when we are listening, we are often thinking about what we want to say next. Let this go, and be patient. Great listening starts with being fully present, attentive and focused on the other person.

We suggest a fundamental shift in thinking and in behavior to one of “Asking and Listening”, or what we call taking a Coach Approach to managing people. 

Our natural human instincts give us the ability to listen on many levels as we listen with our head, heart and gut. Listen to content of the message, or the words being said. And listen for how they say it and what they don’t say as you try to understand their point of view more deeply. Notice non-verbal activity that may communicate underlying emotions and thought processes. Notice tone, volume and strength of voice, facial expressions, use of silence, eye contact, body language, posture and position in the room. Hear what they are actually saying, but seek to read between the lines. All of these pieces are part of the message you are listening for.

How do you know if you are really listening? Try paraphrasing or summarizing the message you are hearing. This checks your objectivity, neutrality, alignment and ensures you are listening with genuine interest. It also confirms you are understanding their meaning throughout the conversation.

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • How can I shift from what I want to say next to what they are saying now? 
  • What nonverbal information do I notice? What might this mean? 
  • How can I paraphrase what I have just heard?

Practice #5: Build on their Strengths
Managers often underestimate the importance of recognizing and acknowledging people for their strengths and contributions. Traditional management focuses on problems that need solving and on weaknesses. The Positive Psychology movement, however, proves that we perform better and experience the most growth when we build on our strengths. This does not mean ignoring weaknesses. In coaching and feedback conversations, noticing and naming people’s strengths helps to balance the picture, giving them confidence and courage to work on growth areas.

Because our strengths come naturally to us, we may not realize what they are or how we can draw upon them. Take time to consider the skills and strengths you’ve seen demonstrated in others and name them using clear and specific language. Avoid generalizations. The more specific you are, the more powerful the recognition is. Engage employees by having them identify and name the strengths they bring.

Focusing on strengths helps both of you to believe in their potential and focus on the future. It shows your appreciation of what they contribute, and puts any performance concerns within a broader, positive perspective. It opens your mind to possibilities, helps you to bring out the best in them, and helps them feel more capable of achieving their goals. Ask a great question to build on someone’s strength such as: “Which of your strengths are being underutilized?”, or “which of your strengths did you use to accomplish that?”

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • How much do I tend to focus on problems and weaknesses?
  • What strengths do I notice in others? How would I describe them specifically?
  • How do they see their strengths? How could they use more of their strengths each day?

Practice # 6: Be Candid
Leading with a Coach Approach requires candor in balance with the other Practices. This can be the most challenging practice for managers as it is common to struggle with either being too candid or not candid enough. Being candid is often described as holding up a mirror or speaking the truth or naming the issue. It adds clarity and specificity, and makes the issue explicit. Providing ongoing candid feedback creates choice and empowers positive change. It has some risk, yet it can dramatically increase trust, especially if you consider how the receiver may hear it when designing your delivery. Candor is being assertive but not aggressive, firm but not harsh, and clear and honest but not brutal. Candid and direct feedback uses succinct and respectful language. It is not vague, subtle, sugar-coated or evasive; it is specific and fact-based. It is not judgment, blame, or punishment. It increases their self-awareness and empowers them to be accountable for their own performance, attitude, behavior, and for their own improvement. Once the issue has been named, it can be understood more deeply and addressed through action and support.

There are many ways that candid conversations can be difficult, so it is important to reflect on your intent, and use the other 5 Practices to ensure your actions are in line with the ultimate outcome you want to achieve. And don’t talk yourself out of it! Do a good job of delivering it, do it often, and it will get easier. Don’t hold back or save it up, it just makes it harder. Remember, you are responsible for the quality of your feedback, and the receiver is responsible for their reaction to it.

Start this Practice by asking yourself:

  • Think of a time when you avoided being candid and clear for fear of harming the relationship. How satisfied were you with the ultimate result? 
  • What am I thinking and feeling but not saying? 
  • How can I hold up a mirror for this person?
  • How can I say what I need to in a completely honest and respectful way?

These 6 Practices of a Coach Approach are critical for leaders of any discipline at any level in today’s changing business environments. Shifting from “knowing and telling” to “asking and listening” is the beginning of the necessary evolution leaders must embrace in order to meet the needs of the multi-generational workforce of today and to develop the new leaders of tomorrow.

This article was first published in HRIA's Human Capital Magazine Spring 2015 edition.

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coaching culture