How can I make improvements unless I know what people are doing and without telling them what they're getting wrong?
Coaching clients on management and leadership is sometimes just a matter of encouraging them to look at their own experience and to identify what kind of behaviour from their previous bosses they found useful in learning to perform well. Often, people say that they copied the way their manager worked; sometimes they felt he or she had made such a hash of managing them, they made sure they did the opposite when they rose to a position of power.
When I ask who was the best boss they'd ever had, they usually cite someone who trusted them to take on a new responsibility but was on hand if they needed support or advice; someone who gave them recognition for progress they made. Their worst bosses are usually the hypercritical, with negative preconceptions that are difficult or impossible to overturn, the ones who never acknowledge progress. Such managers create a climate where their pessimistic expectations are likely to be fulfilled because their staff feel too distrusted and demoralised to make the extra effort required to transform performance.
You face a challenge. You know standards are not as high as you'd like them to be. You're trying to raise them by being involved in the work, directing how it should be done. The trouble is, few people can stand being supervised so closely: children don't enjoy it and adults respond even less well. As Douglas Adams put it: 'Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.' And the problems with being so involved are that it preoccupies your time, precluding you from doing other important things, and it breeds a learned helplessness in the team.
Time to move in to leader-as-coach mode. Work with your under-achievers - and don't lump the whole team in this category, or you'll alienate those who perform well and who put in a real effort. Next time there is a task to be done or a new project to tackle, have a meeting with the team member.
Describe the result you want to achieve, but not the way you think they should go about it. In doing so, use positive words. Then ask them how they'll set out to deliver that result. Avoid a critical tone that implies you don't trust them, or an over-enthusiastic tone that could sound patronising.
Listen carefully to their response. From what they say, you'll be able to tell whether they fully understand the outcome you're looking for and have clear ideas on how to approach it. If so, you can acknowledge this, adding - if strictly necessary - a suggestion on an aspect they haven't mentioned that you feel important. Then agree to meet at a future date to review progress.
If their response shows they don't understand what's required, describe the looked-for results in ways that create clarity. If their suggested methodology for tackling the task seems unlikely to be effective, ask some open questions on ways in which it could be improved: 'How could you get that result more swiftly?' or 'What could you do to make that more likely to happen?'
If, after this, your team member seems bereft of ideas, suggest approaches they might try. Then fix the review date, as before. You may wish to keep a brief record of what's been agreed.
This approach may seem a little long-winded, but it will save time in the longer run. For those who know what's needed and how to go about it, the meetings will be short and, as quality improves, fewer, though it's important to acknow- ledge progress. For the rest, the repeated process will help them develop the habit of reflecting on how to handle tasks before ploughing ahead. Praise from you on improvements will encourage performance at a higher level.
Your manner and tone of voice are all-important in gaining respect for higher standards and a commitment to achieving them. If there is any whiff of critical parent in the way you come across, you'll spark a reaction of recalcitrant children in your team. The more you sound like an adult sharing common goals with a fellow adult, the more successful you'll be.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.