Tag Archives: coaching

Instead of a Confrontation

Cheryl emerged from her team meeting, eyes wide in partial disbelief.

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I expected a big confrontation, didn’t sleep last night worrying, but I think we solved the quality problem with the incoming plastic parts,” she replied.

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first they were going off a cliff, so I asked the question in a different way. It was like magic. They gave me the solution I was looking for. Before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the burrs on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do the rest of the day?”

“I was thinking about taking a nap,” Cheryl said with a smile.

My Favorite Subject

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I am a Regional Manager, responsible for seven locations across the Midwest. I feel I have the ability to manage effectively without talking to my team on a daily basis. But, at times, I feel as if I am not in touch with their issues, challenges or daily routines. In fact, some are not even “available” for lunch or dinner when I am in town. Have I lost touch? Can you recommend a book to read, symposium to attend to improve my management skills? What has been your experience in managing people in multiple locations?

Response:

Thank you for your question. Reading a book will not solve your problem. Staying in touch with your location managers is tough when face-to-face meetings are not frequent. It’s tough, but not impossible.

First, create a master schedule of all the touches for the next six months. This includes face-to-face meetings, conference calls, 1-1 coaching calls, birthday cards and handwritten notes that are snail-mailed.

Ask your location managers what interaction is the most helpful, how you can provide the best support for them. Each person is different and may require a different frequency and kind of touch.

Next, my question. When you do meet with your managers are you bringing real value to the conversation, or would they just as soon skip it? If you are bringing real value to their thinking and their work, your managers will look forward to these meetings. They will not miss these meetings for all the tea in China.

So, what does that conversation sound like? How do you, as their manager, bring value to their thinking and their work?

Most managers think they bring value by providing direction and advice. Of course, there are times when direction and advice are helpful, but please, don’t ask me to dinner so you can tell me what to do.

Instead, ask me questions. Ask me how I am doing. Really doing. Ask about my challenges or difficulties. Ask how I am solving problems. Ask how I feel about my job. Ask how I feel about my life. No advice, just ask and listen. I would love to tell you how I am doing. I would love to tell you how I feel about my life, the things that are important to me. I will not miss the opportunity to talk about myself. It’s my favorite subject.

Whose Problem is It?

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I said. “Rachel has an 8-hour shift. For the past two weeks, she left early, with work undone. The first Saturday, you were furious. The second Saturday, you were calm, but she still left early. What will be different tomorrow?”

“Lots will be different,” Karyn replied. “I took what you said about seeing Rachel as a person, instead of as an employee. As long as I saw Rachel as an employee, her leaving early was my problem. Only when I saw Rachel as a person, did I realize it was her problem. I also realized, if I saw Rachel as a person, why would I wait until Saturday to help her, when I know that is the day of something going on, in conflict with her schedule at work. So, I asked her to lunch on Friday.”

“And?”

“At first, she thought it was a trap, but she agreed to show up. And, we just talked about her. She is in a custody battle with her ex, and she is losing. Three weeks ago, she was late to soccer practice because we made her stay over 15 minutes. So, her ex took the child and she missed the one night a week she has with her kid. She vowed to herself never to let that happen again. She was embarrassed to ask for the time off, but the tension on Saturday, knowing if she was late, that she would not see her kid for another week, it just came out.”

“And?”

“I am the manager. I control resources and scheduling. I asked Rachel, if I could schedule her to leave a half-hour early, if that would help? Turns out, Rachel’s behavior had nothing to do with me, or respect, or authority.”

“I know this conversation seems to be about Rachel and what we learned about her, but what did you learn about yourself?”

Do You Think the Race is Over?

“I changed,” Karyn replied. “But the outcome was still the same. Rachel left early and the work was still undone.”

“Do you think the race is over?” I asked. “What will you do this Saturday?”

“Yelling didn’t work, being nice didn’t work. I don’t know.” Karyn was stumped.

“Were you just being nice, or was there a more subtle shift in you? During all the yelling and Rachel leaving in a huff, how did you see Rachel? Was she a vehicle for you to get stuff done, or an obstacle in the way of getting stuff done?”

“Both,” Karyn flatly stated. “She was supposed to get stuff done, and left it all in my lap when she left.”

“And, last Saturday, you had an early conversation during her shift, when things were calm. Who was Rachel to you then?”

“Well, I treated her more like a person, then.”

“She was no longer something you were driving or an obstacle in the way? She was a person?”

Karyn did not respond to the question.

“You changed,” I said. “You made a shift in the way you saw Rachel. Who are you going to be this Saturday?”

Training Does Not Create Competence

The training wasn’t working, but Crystal was looking in the wrong place.

The skill was simple. Enter the data into the computer during the phone call, not after the call. The software was in place, the training program was clear, with exercises and interaction.

The problem wasn’t the training, the problem was AFTER the training. Once training was complete, the operators were literally abandoned. They were introduced to the skill, performed the skill two or three times during the training, but afterwards, NOTHING. Only one day later, all the operators abandoned the new process and were back to taking notes on paper during the call.

“Crystal, I want you to develop some practice sessions following the training. Create some scripts based on the ones used in training. Then have the operators practice, practice, practice.

“And you are going to have to take off your training hat and put on your coaching hat. Your training is only intended to get this process started. Before you let them go, you have to bring them to a level of competence. Competence comes through practice and coaching. Training comes before the behavior. Coaching comes after the behavior.”

Playing Catch

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In other words, plan, organize and catch employees doing things right?

Response:
Accurate AND easy to miss the point. Catching people doing things right requires planning and organization. I don’t want to simply catch them as if it were an accident.

I want to catch them as if I am “playing catch.” I want to be at the ready, glove in hand, waiting, anticipating AND even if the ball is off target, make every effort to field the throw. Yes, I want to catch them doing things right.

I have my uniform on, hands on my knees. Poised to move right or left. As a manager, I am ready. Play ball.

Positive Reinforcement in the Real World

“So, how does that work around here?” Travis asked. Using the analogy of video games and expert levels made the reinforcement process understandable, but we were running a loading dock, not playing a video game.

“Travis, the guys loading the trucks, have you noticed the different colored t-shirts they wear, the ones with the company logo on the front?”

“Yeah, I noticed. We started that about three weeks ago. The new guys get a white t-shirt to start. We had a meeting about it.”

“And when does the new guy get his white t-shirt?”

“The first day,” Travis smiled.

“No, the first day he punches the timeclock reporting for work on-time,” I clarified. “What is the most important first behavior?”

“Showing up for work on time,” Travis said.

“And when does he get his second white t-shirt?”

Travis was catching on. “The second day he punches in for work on time.”

“And when does he get a yellow shirt?” I continued.

“Five days on time, consecutive days on time.”

“And when does he get a green shirt?”

“When he passes forklift training.” Travis stopped. “I think I get it.”

How to Coach Increasing Competence

“Sustained, discretionary effort. That’s what we are after,” I said. “The training period requires more attention and focus from the manager. But as time passes and new behaviors become competent skills, the reinforcement changes.

“In the beginning, the manager has to overcome push-back and fear of failure. But, as the new behavior turns to competence, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” asked Travis.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, the manager may reinforce good old fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, the manager changes to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, the manager may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Let’s go back to our example of the video game. Modern game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills be demonstrated. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Performance Improvement Depends on This

“Have you ever watched a parent teach their child to walk?” I asked.

“Yeah. I have a niece that is learning to walk. Her parents go goo-gah regularly, but still it’s a wobbly process.”

“Does a parent ever say – No, that’s not the way to do it, let me show you. Don’t fall down like that?”

“Well, no. They just get all excited, clap their hands and gurgle baby talk.”

“Somewhere along the way, we lose our natural instincts in the training process. Behavior that is reinforced gets repeated. The two elements that were missing from your training last year were practice and immediate positive reinforcement.

“Initial attempts at a new skill or new behavior are usually terrible, but that’s not the point. Your job as a manager is to get excited and encourage. Put people in a place where they can try again and get better.

“Look, Travis. When do parents give up encouraging their child to walk?”

Travis was still mentally drawing lines in the analogy. “They never stop, I guess. Only when the kid learns to walk.”

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.