Quick Tips for Coaching Employees

April 1, 2011
Employees need guidance and feedback to know how they’re doing. But you have to do it the right way to keep morale at a maximum level.

Dan Olson, shop manager at Lehman’s Garage in Minneapolis, admits that employee coaching hasn’t always been his forte. There’s a learning curve in understanding how to do this effectively, and Olson says it’s certainly been a process of trial and error.

“I was very demanding when I first started managing,” Olson says. “You need to get this done,” was a common phrase that shot out of his mouth. Then he would stand back and see what results his demands produced.

“People didn’t work as hard when I did that,” Olson says. “As much as I tried to be demanding in order to get things done, it was almost counter-productive.”

Actually, it was counter-productive. Olson says he witnessed productivity drop 25 percent.

“Coaching employees the wrong way can have a ripple effect throughout the entire shop,” Olson says. Employees talk to one another, and a sense of unhappiness can bring down everyone’s morale.

“I didn’t give any feedback at first because I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
— Dan Olson, shop manager, Lehman’s Garage

Olson’s light bulb moment came when he sat in one of his bodymen’s stalls one afternoon, and listened to the technician vent for 45 minutes about problems he was having. Olson realized that, if he had been a less demanding and more communicative employer, he would’ve already known about this employee’s problems before the employee lost his cool about it. Olson knew he needed to change his leadership tactics and become more involved with his employees.

“That [conversation] made me realize that I needed constant, daily communication with every employee in the shop,” Olson says.

Modification of decision-making techniques, coaching styles and ways of offering performance feedback is a prerequisite for leaders as the industry moves toward lean, says Steve Trapp, collision services development manager for DuPont Performance Coatings.

Lean is often mischaracterized as merely a production idea. But it’s actually all about solving problems to become more efficient—and coaching is all about enabling your employees to solve problems, Trapp points out.

Develop and Retain

Business owners commonly won’t offer any feedback to their employees because they never got any themselves and were never taught how to do it, says Charles Coonradt, who has spoken at SEMA on human interaction in business environments. But that doesn’t mean your employees want to be treated the same way.

“I didn’t give any feedback at first because I just didn’t know how to do it,” Olson says. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

How big of a deal is it? Well, Coonradt says withholding feedback from your employees is cruel.

“People want to come to work knowing how to succeed,” he says, noting everyone needs to be praised for a job well done. “People will mentally default to a place where they feel there is no way to succeed” if they don’t have clear daily expectations.

When you coach and give feed back the right way—and in the right amount—you’ll find yourself having to coach less, Coonradt says.

“That’s because you’re developing your employees when you’re coaching,” says Sharon Gregory, owner of SBG Learning Strategies and instructor for PPG Industries’ MVP program. Your employees will become more productive and motivated workers, which will improve your retention rate.

Trapp says that’s a huge benefit since the cost to replace an employee, including recruiting, training and lost productivity, is 35 to 45 percent of their annual salary.

Coaching and offering feedback to your employees will lead to a healthier environment at your shop. But it’s important not to just go stand over your employees’ shoulders and start telling them what to do. You’ve got to understand your employees’ personality styles and a few communication tactics so your words don’t fall on deaf ears.

Know Your Audience

“Everybody is different,” Olson says. “Effective coaching depends on the personality style of each employee; some like to have more direction from their supervisor, and some like to have freedom to make their own choices.”

There are four personality styles that employees can be categorized in, Gregory says. Each style has different needs and ways of communicating. The more you’re familiar with those types, the better you can choose how to give feedback to each employee.

• Analytical personalities want a lot of detail, history and proof that they might be doing something wrong. They might question whether your feedback is accurate if they don’t feel like they have enough background.

• Driving personalities want feedback that’s short, direct, and to the point. They will respond to feedback that centers on goals and actions. They will act on feedback if it’s presented in a way that allows them to understand how it will help achieve their goals.

• Amiable personalities are most concerned with relationships. If you don’t assure them that your relationship will remain intact after giving feedback, they will be more concerned about that relationship than about achieving a new goal.

• Expressive personalities want you to spend more time with them and be their friend. Feedback should be centered on the big picture and how they’re part of the team. They will take feedback and run with it if they can understand how it will contribute to the success of the entire company.

Check out “Hire Right” on how to use online personality profile assessments for employees.

Coaching Communication

Mature managers understand that they need planning, coaching and mentoring strategies in place to ensure their employees are doing the right thing, Trapp says. But many of those managers hit a wall of resistance because they don’t know how to do it right.

“In the collision industry, feedback that’s given to employees is typically negative, expressed in an abrasive way and not done in a timely manner,” Gregory says. You’ll experience counter-productive results with those tactics—just like Olson did. Your employees will be unmotivated, resist change and have negative attitudes—and that’s when you’ll see high turnover.

So how do you go about giving feedback effectively? There’s a few crucial communication tactics you’ve got to know to get the results you want. After all, people make assumptions about how you feel about them based on the way you talk to them, Coonradt says.

• Be clear and specific. The more specific your feedback is, the better off you’re going to be, Trapp says. Establish work or repair standards so you can give employees clear benchmarks for improvement. Then you’re able to reinforce those standards when you give employees feedback.

• Do it in real time. It’s better to give feedback at the moment something happens in order to change the employee’s behavior, Gregory says. It’s never a good idea to wait until the end of the day or for an employee’s annual review to drop a load of feedback on them.

“If you can develop an open environment where people can talk freely to one another and get feedback, it’s going to be a much more productive shop.”
— Sharon Gregory, owner, SBG Learning Strategies

• Be appropriate. Your feedback should be appropriate in volume or magnitude, Coonradt says. In other words, you don’t want someone to make a $4 mistake and be rained on with $400 worth of screaming and yelling. It’s important to keep things in perspective.

• Over-celebrate the positives. For most managers, it’s much harder to get excited about positive things than it is to get emotional about negative things, Coonradt says. People typically don’t celebrate daily successes enough, and don’t praise perfect repair jobs when they ought to or when the chance presents itself.

“Get excited about all the positive things employees do,” Coonradt says. Celebrate and give praise to employees throughout every element of the repair process, and they will be motivated to repeat the process.

• Use “I” instead of “you.” Avoid using phrases like “You have to do this,” or “You’re doing this wrong,” Olson says. That will create a sense of defensiveness for the employee, Gregory says. When you want an employee to change a behavior, phrase it by saying, “I see you chose to do it this way. May I show you a different way that might be more productive?”

• Focus on the “why,” not the “how.” Managers have to understand that when they tell people how to do things, it can seem as though they’re demeaning that person’s skill and capability, and insinuating that person isn’t capable of figuring it out on their own, Coonradt says.

Employees don’t typically like being told how to do their job, Olson adds. When a mistake happens, instead of saying, “This is what you did wrong and this is how you should do it,” say, “This is why we do it a different way, and this is the benefit you’ll experience from doing it this way.”

• Take time to cool down. Feedback should never be given when you’re upset. If there’s an issue you’re angry about, take a few hours to cool down your emotions, Trapp says. This will allow for your words to come out more constructively and more effectively.

• Plan it out. Until you get good at giving feedback, you should plan out what you’re going to say before you have the conversation, Gregory says. She suggests outlining your feedback: State the issue, identify the goal of the feedback session, identify the root cause of the problem you’re hoping to resolve, give options of how the employee can improve, and identify what the next steps will be in implementing the changes.

“This process gives management a tool to use in preparing to give effective feedback,” Gregory says. And it’s a much more constructive way to have those tough conversations.

• Do it frequently. Good coaches give feedback frequently throughout the day, Coonradt says. “A lack of enthusiasm in your shop is a good indicator that you’re not giving enough positive feedback to your employees.”

Positive recognition needs to be a constant priority. Employees operate with a four-to-one ratio mentality, Trapp says. For every four positive things you say to an employee, it registers in their mind as only one positive comment. So for every negative piece of feedback you give to employees, you need to give four positive pieces of feedback to balance that out.

Be A Role Model

Employees really do want constant feedback, but you can’t wait for them to ask for it, because they won’t, Coonradt says. Soliciting feedback is deemed as a sign of weakness and neediness in our society. Employees feel that asking for feedback is admitting they don’t know what they’re doing.

The leader in the shop has to model the importance and set the precedent for having this constant communication.

“This all starts with the owner,” Coonradt says. “The owner has to insist that the rest of the management team emulate what he or she does,” he says, adding that every manager in the shop must “make a pledge to coach better than they’re being coached.”

Leaders have to be willing to receive feedback, too, Gregory says. Periodically ask your employees how they think you’re doing in giving them clear-cut goals and daily guidance.

“That’s a leader who will be setting goals and expectations, and modeling the environment they want to have in the shop,” Gregory says. “If you can develop an open environment where people can talk freely to one another and get feedback, it’s going to be a much more productive shop.”

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