Category Archives: Coaching Skills

Simple, Subtle, Effective

Rebecca did a very smart thing. During the delegation meeting with Todd, she asked him to take the notes. As Rebecca described various elements of the delegation, Todd wrote things down. Before the meeting was over, she had Todd read back the notes.

It is simple, subtle and very effective. I meet many managers who are stressed beyond belief, thinking they have to do all the “work” in their meetings.

What dynamic changes when this responsibility is shifted to the team member? What can the manager now focus on?

It all started with Rebecca’s request, “Todd, I need to see you in fifteen minutes to go over the progress on the ABC project, and please bring a notepad. I want you to take some notes to document our meeting.”

Still the Team’s Solution

“You are still going to use the team to solve their own problem, but you are going to provide leadership to make it happen,” I said.

“So, how am I supposed to pull them out of their malaise,” Rory asked.

“First, you have to be crystal clear with the work instructions.
People will follow general direction with general responses.. If you need specific output, your work instructions must be very specific.”

“So, this is on me,?” Rory clarified.

“Yes,” I said. “That is who I am talking to. You are the leader, this is on you.”

“Okay, what does it sound like?”

“First, does the way that you state the problem have any bearing on the way we approach the solution?” I smiled.

Rory nodded.

“Be crystal clear about the goal. The first step is to make sure there is no ambiguity about what the solution looks like. Then announce there may be several ways to get there. And, it is up to the team to generate those ideas. In that declaration, you have silenced their inner critic and opened the door to explore new paths to solve the problem.”

“I’m listening,” Rory said.

“With only one idea, everyone is a critic. With multiple ideas, we can discuss the merits, workability and effectiveness. Your team will not get there without you. That is your role.

A Manager’s Direction

Rory stared. “You are right, it’s not which method is the best method. Does the team have the confidence to figure out the best method?  As long as they are afraid to make a mistake, they will never generate more ideas to solve the problem.”

“And, where is that shift in mental state going to come from?” I asked.

Rory knew exactly where I was going with this. “I see,” he said.
“You want me to get involved?”
“You are the manager,” I smiled. “In what way could we move the team to generate more alternatives, debate those alternatives and then agree on the best one for today?”

“I was hoping they would figure this out on their own,” Rory replied.

“Well, you could wait,” I smiled. “Or you could move things along as the leader.”

“But, if I get involved, it’s going to slow things down,” he protested.

I nodded. “I would rather spend some time to figure out a committed direction, than wonder about a half baked idea that may or may not solve the problem.”

A Question of Confidence

“Why do you think your team is underperforming?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” Rory replied. “Well, let’s start with what you see,” I nodded. “If you stand back and just observe, what do you see?  What do you hear?” “Okay, if I just report what I see, the team second-guesses itself. They know the goal. They each stand around watching and waiting for someone to make the first move. Somebody eventually does. Then, there is the big question – Are you sure?  Asked in that way, everyone stops.” “Without direction, isn’t it prudent to ask that question?” I wanted to know. “Yes, but it’s not a question of clarification, it’s a question of confidence,”  Rory explained.  “Every member of the team is looking for the down side, to protect themselves, protect the team.” “Protect the team from what?” I probed. “Protect the team from failure, I guess.  I am a pretty easy going manager, so I know people are going to make mistakes, but, even still, when there is a setback, they can tell I get a little testy.” “It’s a natural reaction.  When we touch a hot stove, it’s a good idea not to linger.”  I squinted to look inside Rory’s eyes.  “Getting testy comes with the territory.  It’s a gut reaction to let us know something is wrong. The question is what do you do about it?” “What do you mean?” Rory asked. “Do you let the team wallow in ambiguity, wondering what you will do with your disappointment?  Or do you circle the wagons and work your way out?” “My question is the same,” Rory said.  “What do you mean?” “The team came up with one way to proceed, but didn’t have confidence in the direction.  You and I both know there are at least a half dozen different ways to get the job done, any of which will work just fine.  The team is afraid they will pick the wrong one.  This is not a matter of methodology.  This is a question of confidence, confidence to explore, confidence to debate, confidence to disagree, then agree and commit.  The question is what do you, as the leader, do about it?”

Your Assumption Might Be Wrong

“I am pretty sure that Isaac is a Stratum I and that’s why he is having difficulty with his new responsibilities,” Nelson explained.

“Isaac’s not doing well?” I asked.

“No, I swear, I have explained things to him a dozen times. He always says that he understands, but when I look at the work, he is like a deer in the headlights. Definitely Stratum I.”

“And if you are wrong?”

“I might be wrong?” Nelson tilted.

“What if he is just not interested in the work he is assigned?”

“But that’s the work I gave him to do,” Nelson replied.

“Just because you gave it to him, doesn’t mean he places value on that work. And just because he underperforms, doesn’t mean he is a Stratum I. Your assumption may lead you down the wrong road. Here are some better questions that are more helpful.

  1. Does Isaac have the right skills for the assigned task? Is there some technical knowledge that he needs to know and has he practiced enough to gain the required skill?
  2. Is Isaac interested in the work? Does he place a high value on its completion?
  3. Has Isaac been effective in completing tasks with a similar Time Span?


“That’s it? Just figure it out?” Dalton tested.

I nodded. “You see, your inner critic doesn’t want to do the work. Your inner critic figured out, a long time ago, that you could get by with excuses. And the excuses worked, because everyone believed your excuses, including you.”

“They aren’t excuses, they’re reasons,” Dalton protested.

“Doesn’t matter what you call them,” I replied. “They get in the way of solving the damn problem.”

I could see doubt creeping back into Dalton’s thinking. His face looked scared.

“Look,” I said. “Your critic has a long familiar past with you. He knows all your buttons. But, you have more power. You have already taken steps, and those steps have been inside you all along. Answer these questions. Do you know what your resources are to fix this problem? Do you know what your budget is to fix this problem? Do you know how to figure lead-times into your schedule? Can you develop a receiving inspection process to prevent this from happening again?”

Dalton didn’t have to think long. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully.

“Thank your critic for sharing, trust in yourself and get to it.”


“I thought we already dealt with my inner critic,” Dalton complained.

“Oh, we did,” I replied. “But, do you think your inner critic is going to go away quietly? Your inner critic is already miffed that you allowed yourself permission to fail. You even went so far to explore alternative solutions.”

“And, the team came up with an idea that might work, but it’s a step that we don’t do, don’t have the resources to do and don’t know how to do. At least not easily.”

“Look, you beat your inner critic once. When your manager got on your case, your critic told you to blame it on late materials, a machine breakdown and finally, to blame it on Fred. How did you beat your inner critic?”

“I took responsibility. I gave myself permission to fail. Instead of blaming, I started to explore alternatives with my team.”

“And, you came up with a solution that you don’t do, don’t have resources for, nor the understanding to pull it off,” I nodded.

Dalton stared.

“So, figure it out,” I said. “Get your team together and figure it out. Innovate, man.”


“Here’s the list,” Dalton announced. “We met last Friday, and here is the list. Some good ideas, some stupid ideas, some smart-ass ideas, we wrote them all down. Including this one idea that everyone thought was the best idea.”

“Problem solved?” I asked.

“You would think so,” Dalton replied. “We started with three problems that caused us to get behind schedule. Our materials were late, a machine broke down and Fred called in sick without actually calling in. We started work on the first problem, that our materials were late.”

“And, now, you have an idea how to resolve your materials problem?” I wanted to know.

“Yes, but,” Dalton started. “You see the original batch of materials arrived on time, but the whole batch turned out to be defective. We didn’t notice until we started the production run. Our first-part inspection failed, so we stopped the run. We found the defective material, checked the batch, all were defective. It was an easy fix for our supplier, but it took two days to get a replacement batch.”

“So, what was your team’s idea to fix?” I asked.

“That’s the problem. The team suggested a receiving inspection. You see, the defective batch was sitting in-house for two weeks before the production run. If we had checked the batch when we got it, we would have known about the problem with plenty of time to fix.”

“And, so?”

“But we don’t do receiving inspections. We don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the visibility on the schedule. Someone from purchasing just checks that we received the box, matches the packing slip, and that’s it. Even if they opened the box, they wouldn’t know what to check anyway.”

“Sounds like your inner critic is whispering in your ear again. And, if you listen to the whisper, that critic voice will get louder.”

Colors of Thinking

“Generating alternatives? Green light thinking?” Dalton asked.

“Yes, the traffic light analogy. Green light thinking. How many alternatives do you want to generate?” I asked.

“As many as possible,” Dalton replied.

“Even if the alternative is silly, not feasible?”

Dalton nodded, “Yes, even if it’s a stupid idea.”

“In solving your team’s productivity problem, why would you entertain a stupid idea?” I pressed.

“You don’t know my team,” Dalton observed. “If my team comes up with an idea and I say it’s stupid, that will be the last idea they contribute. Not very productive if I want as many ideas as possible.”

“And, even a stupid idea may contain the spark that generates the idea that saves the day.”

My Way Highway

“So, the solution to the productivity problem with my team requires curiosity?” Dalton wanted to confirm.

“Yes, become a curious child,” I nodded. “You see, you have grown up to an adult and your inner critic has become very sophisticated. Your judge has no empathy for you, your judge only wants resolution, even if your resolution doesn’t work. To reach a real resolution, you have to become a curious child.”

“You don’t mean childish?” Dalton wanted to know.

“No, I want you to see yourself as a child, have empathy for that child. Give yourself permission, yes, even permission to fail. With that, you open the doors to discovery. You have a very real problem with your team’s productivity. There are many alternatives between my way or the highway.