Ever interpret an email differently than the sender intended? Do you find it difficult to read the tone of an email, or find yourself wondering about the reaction of the person on the receiving end of your email? Minor things can spark major misunderstandings.
Email is perhaps our simplest, most frequent reminder about how much the quality of our interactions matter. It’s the little things that make the difference in how we communicate and understand each other.
This concept holds true for lean coaching and any kind of coaching as well. The language we use and approach we take largely determines the quality of conversation we have. Empowering people to do things they don’t believe they are capable of is a gift, one I received through the shared wisdom of my Japanese trainers at Toyota. A good coach should play the role of a servant leader. The leader works “for” the learner/coachee, removing barriers and constraints, helping them improve their work. Every coaching experience is an opportunity to figure out the best approach to communication; it depends upon the personality of the “learner."
Some people are extroverted and some introverted, which is a factor in how some people (especially adults) process information. Extroverts talk to think, introverts think to talk. As a leader, how do you adapt and respond to these and other learning and communication styles?
I was taught that the information you want to relay may be better received if you take the pressure off the learner and place it on yourself. Think of this as transferring the power to the learner. This is quite the paradigm shift for leaders who “tell” rather than coach. In many cases, I may know the answer or think I know the answer to a question I’m asking, or know what I want the learner to do, but what I really need to do is transfer the power to them by asking them to think with me, helping them realize I need them and their ideas. If they think I have all the answers, this is the exact opposite of what we want to be doing as coaches. Good coaching is about asking the right questions in an inviting manner. The learner must feel their expert opinion is needed since they are the process owner. It’s up to me to create that environment. Asking questions well is the key to building a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Only in this way does the learner realize the company is not just result oriented but concerned about processes as well.
How does a coach ask questions effectively? Let me give you an example of what I call the “YOU versus I” technique, something I learned at Toyota.
In many work environments where there is low morale I’ve witnessed a leader try to quickly remedy a quality or productivity situation by hastily walking up to one of their team members on a process and asking, “Why did you do that?” Often this leads to let’s say a “spirited” discussion. With some people this type of question can quickly bring out the claws or at least put them on high alert. Little then gets investigated, much less solved because this can easily shut down the team member’s willingness to be engaged. When you use the word “you,” this infers blame, so of course defensiveness is a result.
A more productive way to approach this same situation is to engage the team member and ask a similar question but change the YOU to an “I”. For example, “The quality group has asked our team to double check our processes. Is it possible I can get your help in order for me to understand this process?” Asking the question this way shifts the weight to you, the leader, and engages the team member in a more receptive manner. Nine times out of ten the team member is more inclined to share their standardized work or describe the current state. This creates a dialogue so both coach and learner/coachee can grasp the situation together, and build trust that the goal is always to improve the process.
Remember, about 80% of problems stem from badly designed processes not people. Blaming people is an easy out, it requires no investigation, it only requires pointing of a finger. Unfortunately, most of us have been conditioned to place blame. When things get hectic, it’s all too easy to want the simplistic way out or a quick excuse. I see people receive corrective action due to leaders’ assumptions (based on past trends) all the time. When this happens, the leader has totally failed to look for the facts of what’s really going on at the gemba. Often they don’t even talk to the person involved in the work.
As leaders, if we continue to ask questions that make people defensive, we’ll slowly condition our workforce to shut down and just go through the motions as if they were robots.
A workforce without the power to think is like having a vehicle without an engine, it isn’t going anywhere. Remember to invest in your people, getting to know them, walking in their shoes from time to time. A quote from Zig Ziglar says it all: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”