Category Archives: Coaching Skills

How Does Hierarchy Promote Cooperation?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

I recently attended one of your Time Span workshops and want to know how hierarchy promotes cooperation?

The short answer is accountability.  Inherent in the structure of hierarchy is accountability.  Unfortunately, most managers misunderstand the purpose for hierarchy and where accountability is appropriately placed.

Most managers believe that hierarchy is a reporting structure.  Even our language misguides us.  ”Who is the new guy going to report to?”  This is not the central question.

The definition of a manager is, that person held accountable for the output of other people.  The question is not “who should the new guy report to?”  The central question is, which manager can be held accountable for the new guy’s output?”

When managers begin to understand accountability, the whole game changes.  Hierarchy provides us with a visual representation, of which manager is accountable for the output of the team.

When managers begin to understand that they are accountable for the output of their team, attitudes change and behavior changes.  Behaviors change from controlling and directing to supporting and coaching.  Every employee is entitled to have a competent manager with the time span capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.

The purpose of hierarchy is to create that value stream, where managers, one stratum above (in capability) bring value to the problem solving and decision making of their team members.  For ultimately, it is the manager who is accountable for their output.

How to Deliver Corrective Feedback

Patrick was curious. “I think I understand,” he replied. “When I say you, I sound like a critical parent, no matter how good my intentions are. The word you triggers an emotional response.”

You didn’t do that right.

I nodded, “The word you positions you as the critical parent (ego state) and invites the rebellious child (ego state) to respond. But when you change the word to I, you invite a different person to the conversation.”

I need help with this.

“Who does that sound like?” I asked. “Does that sound like a parent or a child?”

“It sounds like a child. Children always say I want this or I need that,” Patrick replied.

“Exactly. And when you, as a manager use the word I, it positions you differently. More important, who does it invite into the conversation?”

Patrick was quiet, then his face brightened. “A child always asks the parent. When I use the word I,

I need help with this.

“I am asking for help from a parent. I have invited a parent (ego state) into the conversation.” Patrick smiled. This was making sense and now he knew how to go back on the floor and talk to his team member.

States of Mind
Rebellious Child vs Curious Child
Critical Parent vs Nurturing Parent

Never criticize, it invites a rebellious child to the conversation.
Ask for help, it invites a nurturing parent to the conversation. It is still corrective feedback, just speaking with a different person.

How to Deliver Negative Feedback

Patrick shrugged. “I have tried that sandwich thing where I start with something positive, then criticize the person, then end with something positive. But, my team knows I am making up the positive parts just so I can slide in the criticism. They are smart. They know the game. Sometimes, it just makes the person angrier.”

“Is it necessary for a manager to give a team member negative feedback?” I asked.

“Absolutely. If someone continues to do something wrong, they could develop a bad habit, hard to break. There may be a safety consideration. Even if it just wastes time, the team member needs to know,” Patrick replied.

“So, let’s talk about words. You and I understand the intent of negative feedback, and we have to find the words. Words mean things. I want to change the pronoun. Criticism uses the pronoun you.

  • You didn’t do that right.
  • If you would do it this way, it would be better.

“To a rebellious child (state of mind), you sounds like a critical parent. Even if it is a statement of fact or said in a nurturing tone of voice, you sounds like a critical parent and invites more rebellion.

“I want to change the pronoun to I.

  • I need help with this.
  • I am seeing this process a different way.
  • I want to speed things up here.
  • I would like to change this.
  • In what way can we make this better?

“This one simple change invites a different person into the conversation. Do you know why?”

When to Give Positive Feedback

Charlie was coaching the operators, I was coaching Charlie. Actually, I was training Charlie. Our first subject was Sonja.

“Good morning, Sonja,” I took the lead. “You completed the training for our real-time data entry screens and then we threw you back on-line with real customers. I don’t know if that is fair, so today, we have you off-line for an hour. We will do the same work, but the customer won’t be real. In fact, I am going to be your customer, so if you need to stop and slow down, all you have to do is smile and we will slow down.

“Since, I am the customer, Charlie will be your coach. Every time Charlie sees something he really likes, he is going to stop you and tell you about the element you did well. Ready?” Sonja smiled.

“You smiled,” I said. “So, let’s take it slow. You have your phone script, let’s start at the top.”

Sonja started through the script. Twenty seconds in, I stopped her.

“Charlie, we just finished the first few seconds of the call. What were the elements that Sonja did well?” Charlie stared at me, intently. Though I had briefed him before we got started, he was still focusing on mistakes. In the first twenty seconds, Sonja had made no mistakes, so Charlie didn’t know what to say.

“Charlie, in the first few seconds, did Sonja stick exactly to the script?” Charlie nodded. “Then, tell Sonja what positive element she accomplished by sticking to the script.”

So, Charlie talked about consistency. And we went on, stopping every few seconds, so Charlie could make a positive comment about Sonja’s performance. The first call took 15 minutes. The second call took 12 minutes. The third took 8 minutes. The fourth took 7. Then 6 minutes. The last two calls hit our target at 4 minutes, and then we had coffee.

The Value in a Manager’s Role

“What do you mean, bring value?” Joan asked. “Sounds easy to say, but I don’t know what you mean. How does a manager bring value to the problem solving and decision making in the team?”

“Do you bring value by telling people what to do?” I asked.

Joan sat back, looking for the odd angle in the question. “No,” she replied.

“You and I are sitting here talking,” I nodded. “And in our conversation, am I directing you, telling you how to be a manager?”

Again, the answer was “No.”

“And would you say that our conversations are valuable, valuable to you, in your role, as a manager?”

Joan followed the nod. “Yes,” she said slowly.

“I am not telling you what to do, yet, am I bringing value to the conversation?” I could see Joan making a leap in her mind to follow. “How am I doing that? If I am not telling you what to do, what kinds of sentences am I using?”

“Questions,” she responded. “You are not telling me what to do. You are asking questions and listening. And your questions are bringing value to the decisions I have to make and the problems I have to solve.”

Open Door Policy

“I just can’t seem to get anything done,” lamented Ralph. “It seems that, all day long, people just line up at my door with questions and problems they cannot solve. I spend more time working on their problems than my own problems.”

I asked Ralph how accessible he was. “Oh, I have an open door policy. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I closed my door.”

An open door policy sounds like an admirable leadership trait, when, in practice, it can create unintended results. An open door policy can actually train your team members that you are the fastest way to solve a problem. As the manager, you can become the shortcut that prevents independent research, arriving at new ideas, or formulating original strategy.

On the wall, behind the swivel chair of one of my favorite clients, is posted the following phrase, “What are you going to do about that?”

You see, an open door policy has little to do with the door.


From the Ask Tom mailbag -

What do you do when a person wants a job that, as their manager, you KNOW is beyond their capability?

A false sense of his own skill level is not such a bad thing. Between you and me, let’s call it self-confidence, perhaps over-confidence. Some managers may try to adjust a person’s over-confidence by calling them out, chopping them off at the knees or otherwise belittling them. Waste of time. In fact, counterproductive.

Marcus Buckingham, in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know describes a superb managerial response. He assumes that, in some cases, over-confidence may actually be helpful in the face of a true challenge. So, rather than try to adjust this young man’s confidence level, spend time asking him to articulate the difficulties of doing a high quality job in his role with the company.

Most people underestimate the real difficulties, which contributes to over-confidence and also contributes to under-performance. Don’t cut this person off at the knees. Talk about the work. It’s all about the work. Your job, as a Manager is to help the person explore those difficulties.

What Do You See?

“I see, I mean, I am having a problem with one of my new supervisors, and I need to know if he is up to the challenge. If you could interview him, I would appreciate your feedback,” explained Ryan.

“You started to tell me what you were seeing,” I pushed. “Then you stopped and announced that you had a problem, a problem you think I can fix for you.”

“If you can’t fix it, can you, at least, tell me what to do, how to handle him?” Ryan shifted quickly.

“Let’s go back to what you see. You think you need to make a move with this new supervisor, and you haven’t told me what you see. If you can describe to me what you see, we can likely make some headway.”

I could see Ryan’s impatience. He wanted a quick fix, something he could nail and move on. And yet, I could see his breathing slow down. He knew there was no magic pixie dust. “Okay, what do I see? I see a project on his plate. This is not a huge project, but it will take some planning to make sure everything falls into place.”

“And what do you see, in your new manager?” I pressed.

“I see some confusion, disorganization. I see the clock ticking on this project, and he hasn’t taken the first step. This will be a test in his new role and I am afraid the wheels on the project might get a little wobbly.”

“And what are the things that could make the wheels get wobbly?”

“It’s not that difficult,” Ryan thought out loud. “First, he has to make a list of the milestones, then a list of the people, materials and equipment for each of the milestones.”

“I know you think you have a problem with this new supervisor, and as you describe what you see, what moves do YOU need to make, as his manager?”

Negative Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

What is an extreme negative temperament?


We all have the ability to irritate others on occasion. An extreme negative temperament would be connected to behavior that is over the top, sustained and sticks out like a sore thumb.

It is a characteristic of the fourth factor I look for in candidate selection for a role.

  1. Capability
  2. Skill (Technical Knowledge and Practiced Performance)
  3. Interest, Passion, Value for the Work
  4. Reasonable Behavior

As a part of Reasonable Behavior, I look for both positive habits (repeated behaviors that contribute to effectiveness) and the absence of an extreme negative temperament.

I see myself as pioneering, competitive, assertive and confident. However, under moderate pressure, people have described me as demanding, egotistical and aggressive. Under extreme pressure, I might be seen as abrasive, arbitrary and controlling. If I were, indeed, abrasive, arbitrary and controlling, all the time, to everyone, that would likely have an impact on my effectiveness in most roles where I had to work with others.

Most of us contain bits and pieces of traits like this and under pressure or stress, those traits tend to emerge. As we feel this pressure and become aware of our response, we can, intentionally, temper those behaviors, moving away from behaviors that decrease our effectiveness and moving toward behaviors that increase our effectiveness.

Some, few people, however, move toward those extreme negative behaviors faster, stay there longer and may not be aware of the impact of those behaviors on their effectiveness. This behavior (the underlying temperament) is typically not coachable, and working with a person like this is usually outside the bounds of prudent managerial time. As managers, we are NOT psychotherapists. Our role is to assist the organization to accomplish goals and tasks.

As managers, we deal with people problems all the time. As managers, it is our role to support our teams and coach our team members to be more effective in the work that we do together. When behaviors escalate beyond that (and you will know by the churning in your stomach) it’s time to seek assistance and counsel from your own manager. That’s what they are there for, to bring value to your decision making and problem solving.

Coachable Factors That Impact Effectiveness

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

If we cannot change a person’s natural capability, except to watch it grow through their lifetime, what can a manager do to impact a person’s effectiveness in a role?

Tons. It is a managers responsibility to bring value to a team member’s problem solving and decision making, and there are several factors that contribute to effectiveness.

The most obvious is skills training. I may have the capability to perform effectively in a role, but I may lack the skill (technical knowledge and practiced performance). It is incumbent on the manager to observe the team member, ask questions, test performance and determine if skills training could contribute to effectiveness.

I may have the capability to perform in a role and I may have mastery of the necessary skills, yet I may still underperform in a role that I am not interested in. It is incumbent on the manager to observe the team member, ask questions and test performance to determine what work I am interested in. Another word for interest is passion. So, what work am I interested in or passionate about? It is that work, on which, I place a high value. If I value the work, there is likelihood that I will be interested, but if I do not value the work, there is likelihood that I will not be interested. This has a huge impact on effectiveness and eludes most managers.

Reasonable behavior. I see two sides to this, there is a positive side and a dark side. Elliott Jaques described this as “minus T.” The “T” stands for temperament. Now, there are many psychometric assessments out there that attempt to classify behaviors connected to temperament. While there is some curiosity around these assessments, Elliott found no positive correlation of any “reasonable temperament” to success in a role. Yet, if there are behaviors connected to an extreme negative temperament, there could be significant impact on effectiveness in a role. I find these situations typically beyond managerial coaching. By the way, we do not need a psychometric assessment to find this out. Everyone already knows it, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But there is a positive side to reasonable behavior, called habits. I find these are coachable. I may have the capability, the skills and knowledge, place a high value on the work and yet may engage in habits that are counterproductive to effectiveness. Or “not” engage in habits that contribute to effectiveness.

As a manager, I may be more effective if I arrive in the morning fully awake to get my teams cranked up for the day’s production. Yet, if I am in the habit of staying up late at night, that may have an impact on my effectiveness. And yes, habits are habits, but they can be changed.

So, we cannot change a team member’s natural capability (it is what it is), but, as managers, as coaches, we can have a profound impact on effectiveness.