Coach or Critic: How to Get the Best Out of Your Employees

The brain can be a negative thing. There are all kinds of evolutionary reasons for this, but chief among them is that avoiding bad rather than seeking good has kept humans alive on a planet filled with threats such as dangerous animals, nasty neighbors, and convenience store sandwiches. How this negative tendency affects the workplace depends on which part of the brain you choose to dial up when responding to situations; the reactive brain or the thinking brain. This distinction is especially important for leaders because a reactive leader acts like a critic—negative, whereas a thinking leader acts like a coach—positive. Before you dismiss this by thinking “I am a great coach because I give my employees knowledge and support,” let’s take a closer look at how you might react to situations without knowing it.

Here is a clear illustration on the difference between critic and coach; between someone who uses the reactive/negative brain versus the thinking/positive brain. Have an employee stand up in a room. Place a bowl on the floor behind the person. Give the employee a handful of pennies. The goal is for the employee to toss a penny over his head and try to hit the bowl, without turning around to look at it. Your job is to direct the employee toward a successful outcome. This game is  a metaphor for every task you give an employee, and the outcome depends on whether you act like a coach or a critic.

A critic begins with “Your job is to hit the bowl. Go” The employee tosses a coin and misses. The boss says, “You didn’t hit the bowl. Did I make the assignment clear? Do you know where the bowl is located? Do you have all the pennies you need? Great. Now hit the bowl.” Another coin is tossed, and it lands on the floor. The critic/manager says, “You missed again. I thought the goal was clear. You have a bowl. You have plenty of pennies. You should have everything you need to hit your target, now go!” This continues until all the pennies are gone and no one is happy. Laugh if you want, but a lot of managers treat employees this way without knowing it. They make statements that only point out what is wrong, what is missing, or what is inadequate.

Now play the game with a coach. A coach says, “Alright, we’re going to work together to make sure we hit the target. What do you need from me to help you? Where should I stand? What kind of direction works best for you? Let’s try the first coin and see what kind of adjustments need to be made.” After the first miss, “Great! If you toss the next one a little to the left and with a little more power, I think you will have it.” After each miss, there are more corrections, until a coin finally makes it in the bowl.

I have used this game as an illustration of coach vs. critic at many workshops and some managers respond, “The second way takes way too much time. I don’t have time to molly-coddle my employees through every project.” The reality is it takes less time to be a coach than to be a critic. To be sure, coaching takes more work up front. There is usually more discussion and more clarification. Being a critic may take less time during each meeting because the boss simply says “yes” or “no” and that’s it, but this approach ultimately wastes more time because you will need a lot more meetings to get things right.

Everyday comments are either critical, “This report doesn’t have all the necessary facts!” or coaching, “So far, so good. All we need to do is add more supporting facts to back up our position.” Both approaches will eventually result in the same outcome—the boss getting what he or she wants, but one builds a better relationship and a stronger, more educated employee for the future. The tough part is, coaching requires using the highest centers of the brain. Criticizing is an instant reaction; no thought is needed. Coaching requires knowing the employee and just what is needed to get him or her to the next level of development. Criticizing only looks at what is wrong. Coaching examines what is needed to make it right. Simply put, being a coach takes more smarts.

I made reference to this in an earlier column about effective teams. It has been discovered that a crucial quality for a good team is psychological safety. A team that provides a safety net for its members develops more innovative ideas, solves problems faster, and has higher retention. Some managers don’t like this construct. One reader e-mailed me after reading the column about psychological safety and ranted about how I was promoting weakness and lack of accountability (in fact, teams that display psychological safety report a greater feeling of accountability to fellow members and to the outcome of the project).

In a similar vein, there are people who feel coaching is weak, and criticizing is strong. It is true, coaching has the appearance of being softer because it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of authority that critics have. However, the psychological outcomes are quite opposite. Whereas a critic instills fear, a coach inspires a feeling of obligation on the part of the mentee. With a coach, the employee feels obligated to reciprocate the positive direction and teaching; creating a good fear, of not wanting to disappoint the coach. For a coach, employees will walk through fire. For a critic? They won’t even grab a bucket of water.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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