Coaching Up

Teaching employees how to have tough conversations with their managers needs to be on every training menu. By opening communication lines across ranks, such programs can help build internal relationships, enhance productivity, and execute business strategy.

By Carol Patton

Employee disagreements happen in any workplace. But some employees routinely don’t see eye-to-eye with their supervisor. Whether the boss is overly aggressive, disrespectful, lackadaisical, or simply a poor manager, not many employees dare to approach him or her to address their concerns.

Employees usually lack the skill to conduct a sensitive conversation or perhaps the courage, fearing retribution or a bad outcome. Since the No. 1 reason people quit their job is a bad boss, according to a recent Gallup poll that surveyed more than 1 million employees, teaching employees how to have tough conversations needs to be on every training menu. By opening communication lines across ranks, such programs can help build internal relationships, enhance productivity, and execute business strategy.

No Pain, No Gain

Challenging conversations have always been a problem and are very much on company radar screens, says Alan Fine, founder and president of InsideOut Development, a performance improvement company in Salt Lake City. “It’s been more recognized now as an issue in that if you don’t deal with these communication issues, it’s difficult to get a strategy executed,” he explains. “People always want the silver bullet, a magic solution that will cure it without having any hardship.”

He says trainers can help employees not play the role of victim and explore avenues within their circle of influence or control. “Start with the program’s title and description,” Fine advises. Since supervisors must approve an employee’s request to attend such a course—causing some staff to feel a bit intimidated or uneasy—Fine suggests creating a generic title or description, such as, “Communicating with people with different viewpoints.”

Employees also must understand how to manage their own internal dialogue, adds Fine, which he refers to as interference. Their mind races with negative thoughts regarding their boss’ reaction. Their stress level and tension increase, their breathing becomes shallow, and they develop tunnel vision, he says. If they can’t manage their own interference, he says, it will block them from conducting a productive conversation.

More Tips

Preparation: Employees need to be clear about their issue, link it to their job performance, offer specific examples, and identify the best way to influence their boss to change his or her behavior, Fine suggests.

Planning: Mapping out their conversation also will help employees address their concerns in a professional manner and identify various ways their boss may respond, so they’re better prepared, says Fine.

Role-playing: Rehearsing the conversation with a peer, trainer, participant in the program, or even someone in Human Resources is also critical. “You don’t go into a concert performance without any practice,” Fine says.

Follow through: Suggest that employees schedule a second meeting with their boss a few weeks later, advises C. Michael
Ferraro, president and chief executive officer at Training Solutions Inc. in Chantilly, VA. Did the person’s behavior change? Is the relationship improving? “Have an open and honest dialogue,” says Ferraro, adding that if employees are uncomfortable going solo, suggest they bring a peer, another boss, or an HR representative to the meeting. “Make sure things are going OK. Conversely, if things haven’t changed, they need to let their boss know that, too.”

Constructive feedback: Some employees have difficulty accepting feedback, misinterpreting suggestions as personal attacks, says Ferraro. As an example, he says their boss may have used harsh language, saying their report “stunk” instead of explaining that it wasn’t thorough or up to date. Still, the boss isn’t disrespecting the employee, only criticizing the person’s work. Employees need to learn how to make a distinction between such comments.

That said, “employees need the courage to have the conversation,” says Ferraro. “Many folks tend to think they need to keep their feelings in their back pocket. There’s a way to express their feelings professionally and tactfully.”

Leaders First

Although a training program is a good first step, organizational change actually is needed since some managers are not receptive to constructive feedback, says Joe Laipple, senior vice president of strategic services at Aubrey Daniels International in Atlanta. He explains that supervisors and others in management or leadership positions must feel comfortable asking for feedback from their peers or staff in order to build an engaging and collaborative environment.

Laipple recommends working backward. Train those in supervisory, management, or leadership roles first. Ask questions that tie the training to business strategy or goals:

  • What are the business results we want?
  • What do we want people to do to achieve those results?
  • What needs do we have around specific areas?
  • Are employees being honest with their feedback?

Engage them in role-play or practice sessions where they listen to upward or sideways feedback from others, says Laipple. Offer suggestions on how to pose questions that will solicit the information they’re seeking and ensure that everyone is operating from the same set of facts. Sample questions include:

  • This is what I observed—what are you seeing or hearing from others who are working on this project?
  • How do you think you’re helping them?
  • What evidence do you have that your approach is working?
  • How can I help you?

Giving feedback and receiving it, even if it’s from a direct report, needs to be part of their job description, he says, adding that senior leaders need to embrace a culture that not only permits but encourages upward feedback.

However, such training requires ongoing support. People need to practice having difficult conversations, otherwise, he says, the chance of their success diminishes. “Make sure there are some incremental steps after the training where they can practice,” he says. “Will there be an occasional leader who is uncomfortable? That will happen. Deal with people open to feedback. Don’t start with the most difficult person or most difficult topic. That would be professional suicide.”

What’s in It for Them?

By Tim Hagen, CEO, Sales Progress LLC and Training Reinforcement Partners

Having difficult conversations “upward” (for a lack of better description) is key to employee happiness and management success. These types of conversations conjure up great discomfort for most employees; indeed, most employees typically choose not to have them at all. We often think managers need to coach employees (and they should), but we don’t necessarily think of employees coaching their managers—and that’s something that should come into play, particularly when difficult issues arise.

The following formula is designed to create success and greater employee comfort when addressing tough issues with management: 

1. Ask a permission-based question

2. Use thoughtful and professional language

            a. Share

            b. Opportunity 

            c. Perspective

            d. Welcome your viewpoint

3. WIIFT: Focus on management value in regard to “What’s In It For Them”

A permission-based question is one such as “Bob, would you mind if I shared a different perspective with you in the pursuit of helping our customers have a better experience?” This type of question accomplishes the following:

  • Shows respect to the manager. 
  • Neutralizes the manager from getting mad because he or she invited the feedback.
  • Focuses on the benefit to the manager and the issue at hand—in this case, the customer experience (WIIFT).

The question and its language are phrased in such a way that reduces emotion, which often becomes the Achilles heel of a thoughtful conversation.

Coaching upward to address tough situations takes courage, but if it’s done early—before emotion burns a destructive path—a good leader will embrace it and be more receptive.

The risk of not addressing such issues usually results in the following destructive attributes and behaviors:

  1. Employees vent to other employees without addressing the source: the manager.
  2. The version of the story of the situation gets altered, creating a whole set of other problems.
  3. The employee typically bottles up the frustration associated with the issue and often ends up leaving the company.

If these things occur, the employees lose, management is never given a chance, and ultimately, the organization loses an employee and the value of addressing a challenge successfully.

Training departments have an incredible opportunity to teach strategies to employees to coach upward. Likewise, coaching up can be a key element of an emerging leader training program. After all, issues need to be addressed and managers need to learn—and there is no greater source for such learning than their own employees.


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