A SOLUTION FOR MANAGERS COMING OUT OF LOCKDOWN
The unprecedented dual situations of lockdown followed by the need to emerge from it have resulted in two distinct challenges for managers today. On the one hand, there are lessons to be learned from this crisis and the effect it will have on their future role. On the other hand, these same managers are tired and uncertain about the future. Economic uncertainty and the exhausting mental pressure of the last two months are impacting the important decisions to be taken now. Under these circumstances, there is more than ever the need to stand back and regain self-confidence in order to guide and accompany their teams. The introduction of a coaching role for managers offers a partial solution to this situation. Adopting this practice enables the manager to elicit the production of the best solutions by his/her team. It is an opportunity to explore new elements of his/her role and we will see shortly how this can be instrumental in dealing with the psychological pressures of today’s demands.
Manager coaching by external coaches is valuable but not always an option and can (unfairly) give the impression of being therapy for managers in difficulty. But the introduction of coaching for managers by managers is generally more acceptable. This can be seen as the acquisition of an extra competence for the manager that enriches the company culture as well as adding value for the company.
So how can a manager acquire and develop this competence too often seen as the province of psychologists?
More than 30 years of business coaching have taught me that the coaching of managers by managers requires two things. The first lies in the art of asking questions. Learning to do this well enhances the autonomy of those being coached. The second change consists of managers trusting their colleagues to find the best solutions to issues at hand.
The good news is that learning the first is the best means of achieving the second. Through the process of asking questions, the manager delivering the coaching develops a deeper, wider understanding of the issues facing his/her colleague and assists in finding the best solutions.
The skill of asking the right questions at the right time leads quite naturally to the form of coaching best adapted to the role of managers. Research conducted by our partners, Zenger Folkman, illustrate the impact of this kind of coaching practised by managers. In the graph below we can see the powerful relationship between effective coaching and employee engagement.
COACHING TO RELIEVE PRESSURE
The brutal transition to lockdown created huge pressure to find solutions to remote working that involved much creativity and mutual help. Indeed, these new conditions of work imposed the necessity of much greater trust and interdependence among colleagues and teams. Seeing positive results of such trust may well have relieved a certain amount of pressure for the manager in the immediate. But if the crisis required- and produced- urgent innovative solutions, businesses are now emerging into the new normal post-lockdown… the urgency of re-establishing their business in a greatly altered economic situation takes over and old directive habits re-emerge. Now, this new pressure is more diffuse, a cocktail of uncertainty and accumulated fatigue. This is a good time to address this pressure by making coaching a strategy for managers in the performance of their role.
Learning to ask the right questions at the right time, the manager can find some relief from the relentless pressure of an uncharted future : it’s no longer up to him/her to know everything nor to have all the answers … Rather, by listening he engages with his team members and by questioning he generates the energy to find solutions. By asking questions in the context of the company strategy, he encourages autonomy and responsibility. In short, he takes the basic, vital steps to empower his teams. But also, while playing this coaching role, he takes the necessary managerial decisions to progress the mission. This dual role of management and accompaniment is what distinguishes coaching for managers from professional development coaching. By giving direction the manager sets the framework and by coaching he unleashes the employee’s energy and relieves himself from the pressure of being the only one to find the solutions.
SOLID BASES FOR LEARNING THE ART OF ASKING QUESTIONS
Asking questions can be a pleasure for both parties: refining questions and sensing the energy that they liberate is as gratifying for the person coaching as for the one being coached. This technique can be learned. Here are four essential elements for asking questions:
1. Listen and reformulate
2. Questions that throw more light
3. Questions that open doors
4. Questions that change the rhythm
LISTEN AND REFORMULATE “The spoken word belongs half to the one who speaks and half to the one who listens” wrote Michel de Montaigne. The first practical necessity for successful questioning is the establishment of a relationship. To answer questions, we must believe that we will be heard without being judged. To receive answers there must be genuine attentiveness and this can be expressed by reformulating what has just been said.
QUESTIONS THAT THROW MORE LIGHT « By asking questions I discovered that management could be felt » confided the Quality Manager of a large chemical company. Asking questions to throw more light on what has been said, is the second stage after reformulation. The manager coach learns to use questions like the projectionist in a cinema or a captain with a telescope or a scientist with a microscope. These questions allow the manager to throw light on aspects that the other person was not aware of in the first formulation.
QUESTIONS THAT OPEN DOORS « This isn’t like any other coaching! With your questions, I’ve discovered a goldmine» says the manager of a factory in the automotive industry. Highlighting aspects hitherto unconsidered is the natural corollary of the invitation to develop their ideas beyond the original presentation. From there it is only a further short step: outside their comfort zone. Careful use of questions that open doors allows the manager to encourage his/her team to explore things they had not thought about before or even that they had not allowed themselves to consider. It is a good way to find the best solution by thinking outside the box. This can be delicate because it must be done ethically: Open doors? Yes, but only in the interests of finding the best solution for those being coached and having carefully considered any associated risks.
QUESTIONS THAT CHANGE THE RHYTHM « Keep calm and cool » was a favorite saying of an experienced foreman when preparing to treat the new season’s harvest. The paradox of coaching is that asking questions raises the level of the manager’s control of complex projects while delegating the actual choice of solutions to the team and other partners. To achieve this, the manager must learn to focus questions in such a way as to ensure consideration of the rhythm, speed and intensity of their actions. His/her questions keep things moving forward. Learning to ask these questions is paramount in moving from ideas to action while ensuring that everything happens at the right time.
Learning to ask the right questions allows managers to practise a form of coaching best adapted to the managerial role. This is a valuable support in uncertain times. Use of the four practices outlined above will reinforce the manager’s effectiveness and contribute to greater employee engagement. It should not be confused with individual coaching or personal development. In fact, learning to be a manager coach meets some of the deepest aspirations of all managers: success of their projects, reduction of stress and the development of meaningful human relationships in the process. Now more than ever is the time to learn to ask the right questions.