Coaching Your People: A Key Practice to be a Human-centred Leader (Part 3)

Coaching Your People: A Key Practice to be a Human-Centred Leader (Part 3)

Published 17th June 2021

Leadership Development Trainer, Public Speaking Coach, and Podcast Producer

Published 17th June 2021

“So, what do you want to work on?” It was the first meeting with my coach. This wasn't my direct supervisor, but a senior figure in the field who offered to coach me. I gave him a prepared list of problem statements: I wanted to define my career goals in 5 years. I needed coaching to sell myself as a consultant. Better financial management. I kept giving him different goals, and he kept asking, "Anything else?"

Finally, I was out of ideas. I said "Well...I would like to be more compassionate. I think people see me as a cold person."

He said, "Let's work with that. What do you want to achieve?"

"I want to express warmth, but I want it to be sincere. I don't want to seem fake."

"What do you think makes a person warm and sincere? What kind of behavior would they have?"

When I couldn’t answer, he waited patiently in silence. And waited.

Finally, I said the first thing that comes to mind: "I guess warm people give out compliments, but real ones, specific.”

He nodded. “Let's try it. How can you practice giving compliments?"

That became my homework. Every day, I had to give 1 compliment to someone at work. For accountability, I had to email my coach every day to report the name of the recipient, and what I said about them. In the next meeting, he asked me how people reacted to the compliments, and how I felt when giving them. I said, “It felt weird at first, but you get used to it. Turns out it’s not that hard.”

That’s it. The effect was mindblowing. It changed the way I communicate to this day.

David Kelley from IDEO is often credited in popularizing the concept of human-centered design for products and services. In a 60 Minutes interview, he was asked, “This is not rocket science, so what is it?” He responded without hesitation, “It’s empathetic. Try to really understand what people really value.”

In this third part of our series on Human-Centred Leadership, we look into the most human element of leadership: people development. We focus on coaching as a key practice for individual leaders to develop their people. We zoom in on the core of coaching, which are direct conversations between a leader and a staff member, where the staff’s development is the primary goal.

How to Avoid the 3 Most Common Coaching Mistakes

Most workplaces implement some form of a coaching system, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Though most leaders really do want to help their team to grow, the all-too-common risk is focusing too much on the team’s “issues to work on”. When this happens, leaders begin to see people as problems to solve, or systems to upgrade. The development process becomes dehumanized. There are three ways that this typically happens:

1. Acting as Consultant. The biggest learning curve for managers who are new to coaching is to refrain from jumping to solutions too early. Note the first question my coach asked at the beginning of this article. “What would you like to work on?” Even after defining the issue, he asked me for ideas instead of telling me what to do.

Of course, sometimes this issue may arise not from the leader, but from the person being coached. They might be eager to get all the answers quickly, and prefer being told what to do. If this happens, remind them that they cannot outsource self-development.

As a coach, what you can provide is guidance and accountability. Encourage them to seek out learning from unique sources.

2. See the person as un-coachable. You might hear this from a frustrated leader: “This is a personality issue. / The problem is deep-rooted. / We have tried several sessions, but the person reverts to old behavior.” This is where you can tell if a leader is truly human-centred. Exemplary coaches recognize that they do not “fix” a person once and for all. Oftentimes it is more important to reframe the issue or the individual’s perspectives. A mindset change can be a significant outcome to coaching, even if the observable behavior may not be immediately apparent. In my situation, the milestone was when I saw that practicing warmness in the workplace was not that hard to do. It did not require a personality change.

3. Coach others out of compliance. Some leaders may be performing coaching sessions because HR mandates it. The leader may have received detailed guidelines, and is advised to simply follow the steps for all their team members. This is almost guaranteed to create a bad experience for both the leader and the staff member – it might even deter them to do more coaching in the future. Try to look beyond a one-size-fits-all approach, and create a process that best work for you and your team. You may be required to conduct three one-hour sessions, but you can break it up into half-hour chats every few days. Halfway through the program, someone might want to go back and change their development goal. Tailor the process, and adjust along the way.

The last point above is particularly important at this time.

Your existing coaching mechanism was likely designed under “normal”, pre-pandemic circumstances. In a global pandemic, your team might not necessarily be asking, “How can I develop myself?”.

Instead of growth, perhaps you could focus on surviving these stressful times. Work on your team resilience, avoiding burnout, work-life boundaries, Zoom fatigue, and work on their online communication skills.

When I reflect back on the coaching experience at the beginning of this article, some lessons come to mind. I came armed with potential goals, but my coach pushed me to think beyond what I saw were my “problems”. He focused on what was human. Once we found a topic, he didn’t jump to “how can we solve this?” but rather, he wanted me to build my own criteria for success. What does a compassionate and warm person do, in my perspective? Of course, I expected him to give me the answer, and I wasn’t sure if my own answer was correct. But he took my response and devised a way for me to test that assumption. The practice was so simple that I didn’t feel overwhelmed.

Like human-centered design, my coach took an iterative and practical approach to address my pain points. The issue itself – how to be warm – is deeply human, but it had professional implications, so I was motivated to work on it. It is not, as David Kelley said, rocket science. It’s empathy.

Click here for Part 1: Psychological Safety is Crucial to Human-Centred Leadership
Click here for Part 2: The 3 Purposes of Human-Centred Leadership
Click here for Part 4: How to Make Human-Centred Decisions Under Pressure

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