Leader Coaching: The Habit to Foster Workplace Connection

Do your managers manage or coach employees? There is a big difference between the two leadership styles. Managing relies on an authoritative role to direct employees to achieve specific goals or outcomes. Leadership coaching is more nuanced because it relies on relationship building through communication to effectively guide, motivate, and influence employees. Developing organizational coaching leaders usually begins with a consultant teaching selected managers how to drive team performance by using communication skills quite different from traditional management skills. Leader coaching skills can contribute to critical goals like avoiding unionization through listening and questioning, developing direct relationships with employees, and increasing team productivity by increasing a sense of belonging through employee voice.

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Leadership Coaching Goals

When you bring in a consultant for leadership coaching, it's probably because the traditional management styles are proving ineffective. Traditional management is based mostly on authoritarianism, power, and control, which no longer works in today's workplace. Coaching is a leadership style focused on empowering people to unlock their potential, but it also helps employees manage their expectations and goals in the workplace. In these tumultuous times, employees are developing grassroots unions or joining traditional labor unions because they feel disempowered and lacking a voice in the workforce. 

Research by the Worker Empowerment Research Network found that a large majority of workers report a "voice gap" at work. The voice gap means employees have less say over their working conditions than they want. 

Leaders with coaching skills understand that people don't always mean exactly what they say. They believe they do, but skilled leaders can draw out the real meaning behind the words. Workplace conflict frequently develops between employees and managers because of a mismatch between true intent and the words spoken on both sides. Leader coaching prepares executives and managers to elevate their communication style to drive a match between words and intent, building trust.

A labor consultant helps leaders meet goals ranging from improving communication skills for team building and employee trust to becoming more labor-wise as more employees seek affiliation as a means of gaining a workplace voice and getting needs met. A leader coach can:

  • Help your leaders become employee coaches to increase employee engagement and trust.
  • Answer labor relations questions
  • Assist leaders with effectively and legally responding to union activity specifically occurring at the location
  • Share strategies for assessing employees to determine engagement levels and needs
  • Update leaders and employees on new developments in the labor relations space, currently a continuously shifting landscape
  • Utilize a variety of digital communication tools like text and email, phone calls, and in-person meetings to discuss important news, union-related intelligence, team-building strategies, and more
  • Help leaders develop communication skills that increase relatability, level of trust, and message acceptance.

Do your leaders understand the true employee needs behind the words they speak? Do they know how to find the real meaning? This has become a critical skill as so many employees get caught up in these post-pandemic emotional times, spurred on by a pro-union government and NLRB, and a general feeling of disengagement among employees. 

The Role of a Coached Leader in Avoiding Unionization

Developing and maintaining positive employee relations is the key to creating a workplace environment where unions are simply unnecessary. However, it's easy to make a mistake in labor relations because of today's pro-union environment. Your disengaged or disgruntled employees considering a union as an answer to meeting their needs will know or have a good idea of their NLRA rights, especially if they are getting support from one of the larger national labor unions. 

Some of the most important knowledge your leaders need to maintain good relations with employees and avoid an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge is recognizing protected concerted activity and responding to it legally and appropriately. The NLRA gives employees the right to act together to improve their pay, benefits, and working conditions or correct job-related issues. The concept of job-related issues has been greatly expanded by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) because it allows issues like social justice to be considered job-related. It once required two employees to engage in protected concerted activity, but their goal is to engage as many employees in the workplace as possible. 

Today, the NLRB considers a single employee to be engaged in protected concerted activity when the person is trying to persuade other employees or is acting on behalf of other employees. The NLRB will consider what the employees are seeking. If it benefits more than the employees taking action, the NLRB is likely to decide it is protected concerted activity.

Some limits remain in place. One is that personal gripes are not protected. Another is that employees will lose protection if they are malicious or reckless, threatening violence, lying about the company or its products, revealing trade secrets, or destroying the employer's property.

The coached leader knows when and how to respond to protected concerted activity. Off-the-cuff responses are full of potential pitfalls. The NLRB decides what is protected concerted activity, so the responses of Human Resources, managers, and frontline supervisors are critical. Your leaders need to have a strong understanding of all procedures relevant to your business as their basis for responding. 

For example, a healthcare leader will use procedures on infection control, staffing, compensation, safety, discipline, etc., as the basis for responses. A transportation leader will have a strong knowledge of compensation, road and warehouse safety procedures, warehouse safety scheduling, etc. When an employee expresses a concern, your leader can respond with an explanation of the procedure and why it exists. They can commit to getting back to the person and always do so. However, answering a question, giving advice, or presenting a solution does not empower employees who want to participate in problem-solving.

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Involving Leaders in Solutions Through Communication

The goal is to make coaching skills a regular part of the workday in which managers and supervisors employ successful communication strategies to get results through guided interactions with employees. In The Leader as Coach, authors Ibarra and Anne Scoular discuss a leader as coach. "An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done."

Any time an employee approaches a manager or supervisor with a question, concern, suggestion, or new idea, it's the way the leader responds that impacts the way the employee receives and interprets the message. That, in turn, determines whether the feedback the leader receives and gives is meaningful. That's because people don't always say what they mean. 

Instead of giving advice, coaching leaders ask questions that help employees discover and express their true needs. It's the real employee needs that managers want to address. In the book "The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever," author Michael Bungay Stanier discusses seven questions leaders can ask to lead and support employees and involve them in solutions or problem-solving.

The book is for managers who want to utilize a coaching style as their leadership style. A coaching leader can:

  • Build a more engaged and resilient team
  • Utilize listening skills to empower employees
  • Improve a team's long-term performance
  • Reduce employee overdependence by increasing employee self-sufficiency and focus
  • Get more personally connected to work that has purpose because employees aren't over-dependent on the manager

Following are Stanier's seven questions:

Question 1: The Kickstart Question – What's on your mind?
This is how to begin your conversations in a way that is focused and open. It invites people to share what's important to them and encourages getting straight to their issue or need. You are sending a message that says, "let's talk about what matters the most to you." 

Question 2: The AWE Question – And what else?
Asking this question, "And what else?" works as a self-management tool for the coaching leader and as a boost for the other six questions. Keep asking the question until there are no other options offered, enabling you to make better decisions based on a deeper knowledge of what the employee is striving for. 

Question 3: The Focus Question – What's the real challenge here for you?
As the question implies, this question begins to funnel the topic in a way that focuses the conversation. It slows down the tendency to respond too quickly, so you can focus on the real problem or issue and not the first topic mentioned, which may be based mostly on emotions. Instead of "why," use the word "what." Asking "why" implies a readiness to solve a specific problem when it's important to get more information before beginning problem-solving. "What were you hoping for?" "What is most important for you?"

This question works in conjunction with the next question. 

Question 4: The Foundation Question – What do you want?
This question takes you to the heart of the matter so that attention is placed on what matters. Your employees may not always be able to articulate what they want clearly. You must differentiate between a true need and a want. A want is something the employee wants versus a need which is something the employee believes he or she must have as a human. 

Maslow identified five hierarchal needs, which are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Max Neef developed an expanded model of human needs. This model has nine needs which are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. One of the main differences between the two models is that Neef didn't believe human needs are hierarchal. For example, an employee may need identity (sense of belonging, commitment) and participation (work, responsibilities, duties, rights, associations) simultaneously. One need doesn't need to be met before another need is actualized, and needs are satisfied by being, having, doing, or interacting.

No matter which model is adopted, behind a "want" is the real need the leader wants to uncover and address. For example, "I want hazard pay" is a need for more security, or "I want a voice in the workplace" is a need for belonging. 

Coaching leaders understand people are constantly assessing the risk and safety of every situation in four ways – the TERA quotient. Developed by Bungay Stanier, the higher the TERA quotient or trust factor, the more trust is placed in the message the leader is developing. TERA is the acronym for how the brain processes information to determine the level of safety. The four factors are based on the neuroscience of engagement.

  • Tribe – People ask themselves if people are with them or against them
  • Expectation  - People are wondering if they know the future or not
  • Rank – People are wondering about their value or standing, assessing whether someone is more or less important than they are
  • Autonomy – People are asking themselves if they have a say in what happens and if they can give honest feedback 

The foundation question is a direct way of addressing the TERA quotient and pulling people into the journey toward a destination.

Question 5: The Lazy Question – How can I help?
By asking this question, you learn what the person wants your role to be (e.g., listener, supporter, encourager, etc.). This simple question forces the other person to make a direct and clear request and stops you from thinking you know best without more information. A way to phrase the question is to use phrases like "Out of curiosity," "just so I know," "To help me understand better," and "To make sure I am clear." This encourages the person to fully express their need. 

Question 6: The Strategic Question – "If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?"
This is a strategic question that asks people to be clear about their agreement and committed to their yes answer. Saying YES more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing. You want to ask more questions, like "When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?" and "If I can't do all of this but can do some, what part is most important to you?" 

Question 7: The Learning Question – What was most useful for you?
The Learning Question pairs with the Kickstart Question to make what Stanier calls the Coaching Bookends – ensuring conversations are of high value. People don't learn when they are told something rather than thinking through something. The learning question is about gaining insights. The "for you" makes the question personal and subjective. Encouraging people to answer a question themselves increases the retention of insights. 

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Transforming Conversations

Notice the seven questions transform a conversation. Instead of an employee focusing on their complaint or issue, they think about what would satisfy their need. As a leader, you discover the heart of the issue, what employees expect to meet needs, and what is acceptable to the employees as solutions. Coaching relies on feedback. It doesn't mean employees get everything they consider needs, but coaching conversations give employees a strong voice and contribute to a culture of belonging. 

When you are ready to begin developing organizational leaders as coaches, IRI Consultants is ready to bring the expertise you need to improve employee engagement and manage labor relations in these turbulent times.

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