BL&T No. 021: Coaching Behavior to Promote Employee Growth


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"Through thick or thin, in spite of the hundreds of things calling for your attention every day, never forget what you’re ultimately here to do: help your team achieve great outcomes."

From "Making of a Manager" by Julie Zhuo


Semi-annual performance reviews are in full swing at Barrel. Performance reviews provide employees with a clearly articulated focus for the coming months. The feedback should not be a surprise. On average, I spend two hours on each review. The first hour is to review self/peer inputs and outline my thoughts. After time away, I revisit and finalize.

It is not always easy to create space to write reviews. While prioritizing my week, I remind myself of my purpose as a manager and that coaching is the most valuable use of my time. Coaching helps employees grow. When employees grow and have the support to do so, they're more engaged and effective. When the team is more effective, we all have more time to focus on where we're most valuable.

This review cycle is different than the last. We have evolved the design team reporting structure by moving junior and mid-level roles under our Design Director, Christine.

To guide Christine with her reviews, I've had to think more deeply about my approach and how it has evolved. Over the years, I've learned that there are two key areas to avoid when identifying development areas for an employee: character flaws and measurable goals.

In my early days as a manager, I remember feeling frustrated with how to give my direct reports constructive feedback. Their development opportunities were clear, the words to explain them were not. I did my best to resist the urge for feedback like:

  • "Be more organized."
  • "Ask more questions."
  • "Be a more confident presenter."

Despite good intentions, the receiver of this type of feedback will often internalize it as a character flaw, thinking that they need to change their identity to be successful, not their behavior. The feedback can come off as an attack on their personality or an impossible feat. Either way, progress feels even further out of reach.

There have been several soft-spoken designers on my team over the years who struggled with presenting their work. Like many, they mistakenly correlated charisma or the weight of a voice with confidence, qualities that are hard to achieve if they don't come naturally. By steering clear of character flaws, I found myself explaining the difference between communication style and effectiveness. My feedback became a lecture on a concept vs. showing them the way.

I knew I needed a new approach. Maybe I should look to the future? I began creating measurable goals.

"Be a more confident presenter" became "present five client-facing presentations in the next three months."

My thought was that measurable goals would make it easier to reflect and see progress. Did it happen or not? If not, why? Easy! In theory, this made sense. It also implied working together to get the reps in to make progress. Not so easy...

Now the designer wasn't focused on growth as much as they were on hitting a target. Meanwhile, they were still struggling with presentations, probably searching Google for answers: "How do I become a better presenter?"

While anchoring an employee to a metric may push them to do everything in their power to achieve it, the irony is that they wouldn't need feedback if they could do it on their own. Without guidance from their manager, they will either hit the ceiling of what they can accomplish or quit in frustration. Now and then, an employee will seek outside coaching to get there. A clear sign that their manager is missing the mark.

One day on the subway platform, I was chatting with one of the soft-spoken designers, who struggled with presentations, about their hobbies. They spoke with poise. They were articulate.

I analyzed our conversation for the rest of the night. Was that the same person who stumbled over their words when talking about their work? What was different?

I thought about my experience with presentations. In what situations did I feel least confident in presenting my ideas? Most confident? It hit me. The main difference between the two scenarios was the subject matter. In presentations, confidence is an outcome of comfort with the subject matter. I get nervous when I'm unsure of what I'm saying. We all do. It’s no wonder why the same designer who lacked confidence when presenting designs could stand up and give a keynote on their hobby.

The next day, I was eager to chat with the designer. Sure enough, they regularly felt like they were acting on design critique without fully understanding the rationale. Future conversations had nothing to do with confidence; instead, we focused on subject matter expertise and techniques for managing design critiques.

The lessons learned through this experience forever changed my perspective on coaching and greatly improved its impact.

Lesson? Management is more than highlighting the weakness of a direct report or pointing toward a goal. An effective manager recognizes that every outcome is a product of a complex system. They develop their employees by learning the system that governs them to guide behavioral change that will create favorable outcomes.

Thought Starter

Where have I failed to acknowledge the system when addressing an unfavorable outcome?

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