Supporting Managers: Coaching the person before the problem

Handling employee needs, growth and disputes can consume a lot of time for Managers and for the HR professionals who support them.

As managers and HR professionals, we want to be helpful – we want to solve problems or help folks solve their own problems. However, many times, the focus is on the problem when it should be on the people involved. Just as doctors and nurses need to find the cause and not just treat the symptoms, workplace issues are often bigger and deeper than the problems they create.

While the goal is to find a solution, it can be very empowering to learn coaching strategies to use yourself when others come to you with problems and to help teach to supervisors, managers and other leaders throughout the organization.

We’ve talked about the benefits of using our COACH Approach to leadership. When leaders shift from trying to solve problems that are brought to them and ask questions with curiosity, folks brainstorm more and become self-reliant as they grow more confident about how they can resolve challenges. Whenever team members are involved, they are not only more engaged but they take responsibility for owning the solutions.

While often we think of the leadership team adding coaching to their toolkits, the same benefits apply to human resources professionals. Learning to coach the frontline manager that you’re working with can be very effective in helping them find the way to their own solutions. In turn, they can then use the technique with their staff.

Shifting to a COACH Approach, rather than solving problems for people, would in itself, be a huge win for most managers and most organizations. And then if you want to really hit it out of the park, the goal is to try coaching the person, not the problem.

Here’s what you need to know for coaching the person and not the problem:

  • Personalities are at play: Wherever there is conflict, remember that not everyone involved will communicate, approach situations, interact with others or prioritize the same way. Here’s how personality styles affect conflict on a team. Having a good connection with the person you’re coaching is also important. There are many different tools that help to understand yourself and others (at Padraig, we use the Everything DiSC Assessments with our clients).
  • Coaching is about helping folks grow and develop: It’s possible that you might have advice for someone or even the solution to a problem, but if you jump in and provide that to a manager who comes to you, then they won’t learn how to figure things out on their own.
  • Solving the visible problem now may not solve it next time. While we can all learn from experience, if we figure out a solution to a problem for the moment, but the underlying issue still exists, the problem will resurface – and likely, time and time again. By coaching the person, we help them figure out what is generating this problem and thus they achieve lasting change and growth.
  • Be an active listener: When coaching, you need to offer your full attention. Book a time if you have to, and then listen with the intent to understand rather than to respond. Be curious; listen without judgment and without feeling the need to draw conclusions. Focus on the person, their body language, and their pauses as much as sentences. What might they not be saying? Where are the issues coming from for them?
  • Coaching requires curiosity: When professional coaches coach leaders, they coach the person, not the problem. When leaders use a COACH Approach with their staff they too can focus on the person before the problem. The goal of coaching is to help someone think and reflect. Once you’ve asked some questions to discover the problem, consider going deeper with questions like:
    What is really important to you in this situation?
    What do you think (or, believe) about this situation?
    Where are you stuck?
    What are you feeling as we talk about this?
    When have you felt this way previously? Note that none of these questions start with WHY and each is focused on the person themselves. Using open-ended questions to get to the WHAT helps to move from the complaint or problem to the underlying causes.
  • Resist the urge to fix things: When coaching, your focus is on reflexive inquiry. You’re helping someone else think through their problem, not leading them to the outcome or solution you want – or offering a critique of their situation. Practice being comfortable in the silence of pauses, holding space for someone else to ponder and process. When appropriate, share neutral observations of things the person raises that could be blocks, “I hear you say that X is difficult. Can you say more about that?” “I noticed that X has come up a few times. What are your thoughts?” or, “What does it mean to you when we talk about the challenge you’ve shared about X?”
  • Move toward actions: Even if we’re not trying to simply solve the problem, and you’ve been successful in uncovering some underlying beliefs, barriers or obstacles, help the manager or employee toward next steps. Help them leave with an actionable plan. “So, now that we’ve discovered Z, what do you think your next steps will be?” “What will help you stick to that?”
  • Underscore the value of coaching: After someone has an “aha” moment, ask what was valuable about the coaching session. This helps to attach value to the COACH Approach, which for many folks will motivate them to add coaching to their own leadership toolkit. Then, check-in again a little while later to see how things are going. What worked? What, if anything, would they do differently?

We know that organizations that build a coaching culture win BIG. It has to start somewhere! When HR professionals are able to use coaching to empower and mentor managers, supervisors and other members on the team begin to see the value of coaching those who report to them instead of directing outcomes.

Coach’s Questions:

What are your feelings about coaching? What benefits do you see in coaching the person rather than the problem? When might you try coaching? What would help you try coaching when a problem is brought to your attention, rather than solving that problem for them?