The Secret to Coaching Performance: Begin with Empathy

February 27, 2019 • 8 minute read • by Saeed


“What is necessary to change a person, is to change his awareness of himself.”

Abraham Maslow

You’ve been a manager and a leader for a long time. You’ve followed the traditional route of managing performance. It has had mixed results. You want more. You yearn more. You want to develop and grow your people. You feel a sense of responsibility towards them and to yourself. If so, performance coaching may be just the remedy you need for your management hangover.

Re-framing the conversation

At first, when adopting a performance coaching approach, you may find it challenging to change the types of conversations you usually have with your employees. This is understandable. The likelihood is that these are long-standing relationships where conversations have been limited to tactical considerations vs. growth and development concerns. In contrast, performance coaching (coaching aimed at optimizing performance) seeks to re-frame such conversations into discussions of the results the employee seeks to achieve, in terms of both improved performance and improved operational results.

However, there are “basic” steps or pre-conditions that need to be met before an individual can successfully advance to the next level and achieve progress towards performance goals.

At the root of every organization are its people. Their needs are universally human. Humans generally want to contribute their best work, and they need to believe their work matters in order to do so. They need to be an accepted part of a tribe. They need to be empowered and enabled to get work done. They need their contributions appreciated, and their ideas and opinions respected.

So, where do you start?

Start with Needs

If you are a proponent of Freudian psychology, human beings are entirely driven by primitive urges like sex and aggression. If you are in the B.F. Skinner camp, they are just over-sized lab rats waiting to be conditioned.  At best, these approaches were dehumanizing. At worst, harmful. Their rather bleak, soul-less vision of human nature constituted the first two “waves” of psychology as a science. In the third wave, Abraham Maslow and the humanists brought a more optimistic view of human nature that focused more on positive mental health and psychology than their predecessors’ obsession with mental illness and misery.

It’s upon this work that the modern workplace can fashion its approach to performance and productivity coaching. Just as the Hierarchy of Needs is a model in which Maslow attempted to capture different levels of human motivation, a similar mental model is useful here to establish a baseline from which we start performance coaching.

A 2017 Gallup poll found that only three in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup calculated that by “moving the ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.” And macro-level employee engagement data is generally dismal, showing that nationally around 30% of employees are engaged with their work, meaning a healthy majority are disconnected and unmotivated.

The framework presented here recognizes that these employees are not having fundamental needs met and is grounded in developmental theory and builds on the work of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

These needs can be summarized as follows:

1.      The need to feel valued – Investing in employee appreciation is critical. In fact, if ensuring your employees feel valued is not one of your primary prerogatives as a manager, your company will suffer as a result. That is simply because feeling valued is probably the most central need humans have. Feeling valued is not a one-off like feeling appreciated. It’s something that is built over time. This reinforces the importance of regular coaching conversations.

2.      The need for psychological safety – Fear of failure is a key indicator of an environment with low levels of psychological safety. Psychological safety is present when the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking and people feel able to speak up with relevant ideas questions or concerns.

3.      The need for trust – Trust is the foundation for building strong teams, creating a positive work culture, and producing results. You know the environment is suffering from a lack of trust when communication is covert, employees lack loyalty, and results are inconsistent.

4.      The need for connection – work relationships are incredibly important to employee well-being. As humans, we crave contact and connection with other people just as we do food, shelter, and safety. Hence the success of so many social media platforms. As humans, we crave contact and connection with other people. It’s an important component of belonging to a tribe and a key stimulator of intrinsic motivation.

5.      The need for meaning – People find meaning when they see a clear connection between what they highly value and what they spend time doing. That connection is not always obvious, however. Hence, the coaching conversation. We are usually pretty good at sharing financial data. But far more motivating to employees are stories about human impact and how what they do has influence on that impact.

6.      The need for autonomy – When asked why they decided to switch to a different career, the vast majority of employees represented in a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics report indicated they felt either a lack of respect or a lack of autonomy. Autonomy is both a personal trait and a motivational state. From the time you learned to crawl, you have been striving towards a feeling of self-determination and self-directedness. But while we reach for autonomy and self-determination, we are continuously hamstrung by rules, structures, and policies. This means that although autonomy can be somewhat stable at the personality level, it can vary from situation to situation and moment to moment. Evidence from research suggests strongly that when the need for autonomy is satisfied, people feel more interested, engaged, and happy.

7.      The need for respect and recognition – Recognized employees are happy employees. How many times has your manager taken credit for an idea you had and how many times did your motivation go down the tubes along with it? You may or may not take your work home with you but you do take home the feelings you are left with when you have not been recognized for your contributions. You feel slighted, angry, and disappointed. You might even start hitting the job boards. Conversely, recognized employees tend to stick around and report feeling more fulfilled on the job. Despite years of research proving the overwhelmingly positive effect of employee recognition on the bottom line, few bosses take the time to recognize and reward their employees for a job well done.

8.      The need for growth and learning – Employees will always perform at their best when the environment is conducive to growth. One of the most important factors in employee engagement is whether employees feel as if they have opportunities for growth and development. Those who grow are far more likely to engage than those who stagnate in their roles. It’s no secret that innovative technology and generational expectations are redefining the relationship between work and learning. Careers today are a continuous learning journey rather than the product of one necessitating the modern workplaces to become hubs of personal development. That’s a good thing because with the dynamic and ambitious millennial generation set to make up half of the U.S. workforce by 2020, the demand for progressive career models is on the rise. If you want engaged employees, embrace continuous learning.

9.      The need to understand the ‘why’ – If you don’t know your responsibilities and you don’t know why you are tasked with a particular project or outcome, it’s hard to be engaged. Unless employees understand the greater why behind what they do, their motivation to do it will always be less than 100%. This is a critical component of management but also a difficult one because often as managers, we just want the work to get done. The truth is however, that the change you seek will never happen organizationally unless people understand the ‘why’ behind their what. The way to approach this is simply to communicate the strategy in a more proactive manner, so that all employees understand the importance of the changes you seek to implement.

10.  The need for certainty and consistency – Finally, human beings don’t do well with uncertainty and a lack of clarity. Obviously, when employees feel insecure in their jobs because of pending lay-offs or toxic bosses, motivation is impacted. But more commonplace, when there is no vision, no goal, no north star, it impacts motivation. Most people can deal with a boss who is demanding and quick to criticize… as long as he or she treats every employee the same. And your company vision creates a sense of purpose and adds a little meaning to even the most repetitive tasks. True,

I would argue that these top 10 needs all must be met at some level in order to optimize individual or group performance. This list does not preclude other needs such as the need for feedback. And we can discuss and debate the placement of each need in the hierarchy or whether some actually sit side-by-side. We don’t even have to think of it as a hierarchy. We can think of it as a chain that mustn’t have any weak links. Instead of debating how important we think each need is, manager-coaches should enter the conversation with this basic framework in mind. The highest-level need identified by the employee likely correlates to their main lever of motivation.

Ask Powerful Questions

Finally, to properly adopt a performance coach approach, you will need to reframe the conversation from a focus on evaluation and weakness to one that focuses on employee strengths, growth and development. Re-framing requires asking powerful questions in an effort to influence the way someone thinks about their role and their performance within that role. Research has it that self-perception is a greater predictor of performance than any other metric. Managers sometimes fear that such questions will be perceived as challenging the employees’ capacity to perform. Nothing is further from the truth (though I agree there is both a science and an art to the practice of asking powerful questions). If you are a manager of people, you need to start honing your questioning skill to a fine edge if you want to influence your employees’ performance.

A Final Word

By connecting your questions with the mindset of the employee, you begin to establish the baseline for having impact on their performance.

What kind of difference would it make for your company if your workforce was engaged in solving problems, making recommendations, expressing their new ideas, and taking care of your customers?

We all need employees who are enthusiastic and who bring their A+ game and their whole self to work every day.  You need this not just from your star players but from everyone every day. The single element that distinguishes one company from another more than anything else is its people and the effort they exert. I would argue that the secret to unlocking this unlimited source of energy for your company is to build and strengthen the bonds between you and your employees. When you trust and respect your people–and really connect with them–they will respond with commitment and enthusiasm.

The way to do that is to adopt an empathetic performance coaching approach.

Good luck.

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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC

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