Blog Post 11-22-13

Supervisors Need Coaching Skills

Marsha was frustrated with her new team. It seemed like there were often team discussions she couldn’t quite grasp, almost as if the team had its own secret language. She hadn’t had much time to build relationships yet, that was true; but the team was heading up a major software upgrade and she had all she could do just to learn the technical side of her new job. How could she spend time on anything else?

She decided to go to one of the team leads, Jarand, who had been around for a long time. “I’m looking for advice,” she told him one morning. “Every time we have a team meeting it seems like something got decided without really being verbalized, and I’m left confused. Everyone leaves the room knowing what to do except me.” Jarand glanced up from his laptop for a moment and nodded. “I know what you mean,” he said. “New folks on the team often say it seems like we have our own shorthand and it takes time to learn it. Just try speaking up more in the next meeting. If you don’t understand something, say so.” Jarand began typing again. Marsha wanted to ask more questions but he seemed too busy to interrupt, so she went back to her desk, more frustrated than ever. How could she speak up in meetings if she couldn’t even figure out what to speak up about?

Marsha stewed for another week. Then one day it occurred to her to speak to Abel, a supervisor in another unit who had once been a member of her current team. She didn’t know Abel very well, but he had always seemed like a patient, communicative kind of person. She found him in the cafeteria that afternoon, and after she explained her problem to him Abel invited her to stop by his office after lunch for a chat.

“Can you give me an example of a time that you felt confused in a team meeting?” he asked her. “Just this morning!” Marsha replied. “Allison was talking about a software glitch we needed to fix, and Dot said, ‘What if we just handled it the same way we handled the ERP data migration last year?’ And everyone nodded their heads and got up and left the room, just like that. I was left sitting there wondering what was going on.” Abel nodded and responded, “So they didn’t even think about the fact that you weren’t there last year and couldn’t possibly know what they were talking about. That must be frustrating. Have you been to talk with anyone else about this yet?” “I tried to talk to Jarand,” Marsha said. “He was pretty dismissive.” “What else do you think you might try doing?” Abel asked. “Well…I guess I should speak up in the meeting and ask if someone could explain the history to me,” Marsha said, hesitating. “But it feels wrong. It feels as if I’m slowing the momentum of the team if I do that.” “Is there some other timing that would work better for communicating about the problem?” Abel asked. Marsha considered for a moment. “You mean like bringing it up with the team before it happens, instead of waiting for the moment they all want to get back to work?” Abel nodded and smiled. “That’s a great idea,” Marsha said enthusiastically, forgetting that it was her own idea to begin with. “At the beginning of each team meeting we do a round robin to surface new issues. When it’s my turn I could say that I’d like to talk about team communication in general. Then I could give a few examples of how I’ve been left in the dark sometimes because I don’t know the history of particular projects and decisions. Then I could ask the team how they want to handle it. Maybe they want to take more time in meetings to explain things, or maybe they’ll just assign me a mentor for a few months.” “Sounds like you’ve got a plan!” Abel said. “Please let me know how it goes, and don’t hesitate to stop back in if I can help in any way. I’m always happy to help you think through a challenge.”

Marsha returned to her desk feeling enthusiastic for the first time since joining her new team. Not only did she have a plan, but Abel had helped her to see that she had the answers all along.

Do your managers and supervisors know how to use powerful questions to coach their employees, rather than spoon-feeding them all the answers? CI International can help! We are conducting a Coaching Skills for Leaders Workshop in Washington, DC on December 10, 2013. For more information contact Alli Christie at