Coaching skills that will make you a better leader

In the past, most people began successful careers by developing expertise in a technical, functional, or professional domain. Doing your job well, meant having the right answers. If you could prove yourself that way, you’d rise up the ladder and eventually move into people management—at which point you had to ensure that your subordinates had those same answers. Command and control were the name of the game, and your goal was to direct and develop employees who understood how the business worked, and were able to reproduce its previous successes.

 Not today. Rapid, constant, and disruptive change is now the norm, and what succeeded in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future.

 To cope with this new reality, companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which leaders give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.

 ‘There’s no team without trust,’ says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He knows the results of the tech giant’s massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs. 

Psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive co-worker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers. This ‘act first, think later’ brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning. Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds. While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace.

Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humour increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity. 

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can sustain the broaden-and-build mode. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behaviour. This is a huge factor in team success, as Santagata attests: ‘In Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.’ (Delizonna, 2017) 

Employees no longer want to work just to keep their job. They want to work to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Great leaders understand the importance of creating belonging, psychological safety and providing inspiration to increase motivation in their teams. A proven way to do this, is through essential coaching skills. 

More and more companies are investing in training their leaders as coaches. Increasingly, coaching is becoming integral to the fabric of a learning culture—a skill that good managers at all levels need to develop and deploy. 

Effective coaching skills take practice, but the improvement in team cohesion will be evident almost immediately.

Improvement in handling stress:

Healthy stress builds skills and confidence, where excess pressure builds distress. Don’t whip your team. Employees respect a hard-working leader rather than being afraid of a fear-mongering leader. Leading by example is incredibly important. 

Teams that feel the stress is shared are far more likely to be motivated in helping with forward motion (as it cultivates psychological safety). Delegating responsibility is a great way to introduce a healthier growth mindset in a team.

 When things get ‘hot,’ you get ‘cool.’ When things are ‘cool,’ it’s time to ramp things up. An effective leader manages their reactions to stressful situations well. Self-awareness is a skill that can be cultivated. It is incredibly helpful when leading a group of people.

Improvement in handling stress:

Don’t punish failure, as it is part of success. Coaching an employee through a mistake is a much better approach. Nobody ever got to be the best at something without doing it wrong along the way. An effective leader helps their team to learn from their errors to avoid them in the future. Failure is an opportunity to see how to do something better and more intelligently next time – so treat mistakes as such. 

Celebrate valued work and accomplishment. Take the time for each individual to know they are heard and valued in your team. One to one communication is very effective in helping your team to stay on track toward common goals. Every employee needs to know they’re useful. Infuse positivity into your team. When employees know their strengths and can consistently build their work from those strengths, a more cohesive workplace may be forged. Creating space for celebrating what is working for a team is a pathway for continued growth and cohesion. 

Active listening is a powerful skill to cultivate as a leader. 

Being an active listener means that you are mentally present within the conversation. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you have understanding and listen carefully to understand the core concerns and objectives of the person. Some employees may need added support due to personal adversity, as well. Supportive, active listening benefits a team with trust and understanding. Here are a few ways to improve this important coaching skill:

Powerful Questions. This means questions are open-ended, rather than one that would elicit a yes or no response (closed). They don’t include complex language and generally start with words such as what (‘what about that was a good choice for you?’), how, when and where (preferably not why). Choosing your words wisely contributes to maintaining psychological safety while asking questions and allowing the employee to take ownership of their actions and choices. 

Empathy is another coaching skill that is much needed in the workplace. Employees are human beings. A leader who sees them as such, while still expecting the bottom line to be protected, will find a more connected team. Expressing empathy need not prevent you from holding people to high standards. You may fear that empathising is equivalent to excusing poor performance but this is a false dichotomy. 

Empathising with the difficulties your employees face is an important step in the process of helping them build resilience and learn from setbacks. After you’ve acknowledged an employee’s struggles and feelings, they’re more likely to respond to your efforts to motivate improved performance, and to build a trusting relationship. 

In conclusion: It is important to point out however, that proper coach training is a crucial part of becoming a successful coach-leader. We provide a diploma in introduction to coaching, which will provide the necessary training to start incorporating coaching as a way of being into your leadership role!

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