As coaches and managers, we spend a lot of time and energy making sure our employees are okay. We worry about how to give feedback in a way that will build them up and give them confidence to grow. We worry about how to talk and listen effectively. We stay up at night strategizing how to set goals that will challenge but not overwhelm them, and we spend our days being patient as employees navigate their way toward those goals. What we don’t spend nearly enough time on is checking to make sure WE’RE okay. As anyone who’s ever travelled on a plane knows, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. It’s pretty hard to help your seatmate if you’ve just passed out from lack of oxygen, and the same goes for helping your team. If you exhaust your energy trying to solve every little problem for your coachees, you might find you have no energy left to be a good coach or manager. So how can you make sure your oxygen mask is secure?
We’ve heard a lot of stories from the trenches of coaching over the years, and they tend to boil down to the same sorts of issues. We’ve collected a few of pieces of advice for dealing with them. Here are five:
1. Don’t be working harder than your employees.
In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, sometimes you “gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” Most of us are in our roles because we are empathetic. We don’t want employees to fail. None of us want to throw in the towel on an employee, and we work very hard to help an employee turn themselves around. That all works. Unless we care more about those things than the employee does. Then it doesn’t. The reality is, some employees appreciate our effort on their behalf, and are right there with us working on their objectives, coming up with ideas for improvement. Others, well, aren’t. It is okay to ask yourself, why should you continue to invest in them more than they are willing to invest in themselves? (Hint: you shouldn’t.) In general, your level of investment in an employee’s development should mirror their own. Anything more or less just isn’t fair to them, you, or to other employees who need your attention and are actually working hard.
2. Choose which rocks to die on.
Most of us got to be managers because we saw things that needed fixing, and coaches because we want to pay it forward by helping others fix things. Unfortunately, this desire to fix things can get out of hand, and those who cannot let anything go by may even have earned a reputation as a micromanager. (No names. But you know who you are.)
But even the most alert among us can’t fix everything or win every point. And really, we shouldn’t try to. When we choose which battles to fight (or which rocks to die on) and which to let go, we better focus our energy and save our sanity. We also cue our employees so they know what is most important to us and the organization—and increase their odds of success. Choosing like this gives you permission to prioritize the important things, instead of the frustrating experience of scrapping over every issue or inaccuracy—big or little. Try it!
3. You’re a boss, not a buddy.
It’s often hard for us, as coaches and managers, to thread the needle between being too distant or being overly familiar with employees. Being too cold can prevent you from connecting to and inspiring employees as a leader. Being too familiar can prevent you from being objective enough to have honest coaching conversations. The balance usually comes when we understand we are a boss, not a friend.
As managers and coaches, we have to walk a fine line. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be friendly. You should. You should also be empathetic. Empathy matters a lot. You can show you are human. But at the end of the day you are there to do a job for your company: to get the best possible performance from your employees and to create an environment that helps them develop and grow. You can be a good boss, or a good friend—but you can’t be both.
4. Don’t waste time treating symptoms instead of the problem.
As managers, it is easy to get sucked into treating symptoms instead of causes. If an employee is consistently late with a weekly report, for example, it is faster and simpler to criticize them or privately jump to conclusions about why that is happening than to ask what is really going on. But the truth is, unless you ask, you may be addressing the wrong issue.
Being too quick to treat symptoms can make us miss serious underlying problems that may be going unaddressed—or even being exacerbated by your focus on the symptom. If you are too busy chastising Sally for her late reporting, you may be missing the feelings of inadequacy that are making her over-check her numbers—or her crippling belief that you don’t have confidence in her. Behavior is always a symptom. Highlight your concern with the employee and then listen to their side of the story. Don’t interrupt. Ask why. Ask why again. Probe deeper to get at the root cause. And then work from there.
5. Coach, know thyself.
When you walk into an interaction thinking you know how it will go, the chances are very high that your strong belief will cause it to go that way. If you think you’re going to have a good meeting, you’ll do everything possible—consciously or unconsciously— to make that happen. If you are dreading a 1:1 with an employee and are sure it’s going to be horrible, you will undoubtedly convey that emotion and belief to the employee. And, chances are, it will be horrible—for you both.
As coaches, managers and humans, it’s important for us to understand the biases we bring to every encounter. Our feelings and expectations can determine the outcomes of feedback. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right.” The same is true for us and the people we are coaching. We hold a lot of power as coaches, and whether we think they can or cannot achieve something has a lot to do with their ability to develop. Remember that what you bring into that room or conversation is a huge part of what your employee will leave with. Adjust accordingly.
Above all, always remember, coaching is a team effort! You don’t have to go it alone. Coaches need coaches too, and there are resources for you out there to help you save time and be more effective. (Especially if you have a coaching and feedback solution that has great support.) If you’re looking for more advice like this, you can find more coaching survival tips in our latest guide: War Stories From the Coaching Trenches—Survival Advice for Managers and Coaches. Good luck out there!