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Coaching a direct report who asks for your help

February 25, 2023
Borderless Leadership

Evolution has made humans helpful. We have evolved as a species to be “prosocial,” behaving in ways that are positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance, connection, and friendship. Asking for, offering, and receiving help have aided our long-term survival.

That being said, there is a difference between being inclined to help someone and knowing what kind of help that person wants or needs. As a leader, you play an important role in helping others in a way that doesn’t rob them of their autonomy and ownership (micromanaging) or leave them wondering what they’re supposed to do next (under-leading).

One area where this tension often shows up is when a direct report asks for help. What’s the most effective way to offer your support? How can you help them cross the bridge between goal setting and goal attainment?

Telling someone exactly what steps they need to take to cross that bridge may make sense when they’re just starting in a new role, with a new project, or if there’s only one right way to get it done correctly. However, when someone has a small measure of experience under their belt, your role is to help them consider and design those next steps for themselves. As a result, they’re much more likely to commit to the plan they’ve created.

Here’s what micromanaging a plan might sound like:

Your direct report: “I need to be more consistent at logging my sales calls, so that I have better data for customer follow-up. Can you help me?”

You: “That sounds like a smart idea. I’m happy to help. Here’s what you should do… [insert your own plan here]. You might want to take some notes.”

This approach doesn’t leave space for their own resourcefulness, creativity, or ownership.

In contrast, under-leading might sound like this:

Your direct report: “I need to be more consistent at logging my sales calls, so that I have better data for customer follow-up. Can you help me?”

You: “That sounds like a smart idea. I’m happy to help. My door is always open.”

While you may be offering an open-door policy to avoid over-leading, you’re not actually helping them make the shift from goal to action.

Consider this approach instead:

Your direct report: “I need to be more consistent at logging my sales calls, so that I have better data for follow-up. Can you help me?”

You: “That sounds like a smart idea. I’m happy to help. What do you think could help you be more consistent?”

Notice that you’re not offering your action plan; instead, you’re creating the space for them to consider what they need, and what would go into their action plan. In their Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Options,” Carol Kauffman, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Institute of Coaching, and David Noble, coauthor of Real-Time Leadership, suggest that you may want to “lean with” your colleague. This includes empathizing, encouraging, and coaching to give them space to think and the chance to feel independent.

That doesn’t mean you can’t provide insights, help them access resources, or troubleshoot when they hit a roadblock. You may need to “lean in” if your colleague is stuck and would benefit from help deciding, or from some direction, or even from a challenge. But when you do that because you’re impatient, uncertain, risk-averse, or craving control, you’re likely to undermine their engagement in service of your own needs.

Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Advice Trap, asks managers to reflect on what’s more important: “You being right, having the best idea, or giving the person you are leading the opportunity to come up with their own idea, do their own thinking, and claim ownership of their own insight?”

If you want your colleagues to own their plan, they need to come up with their next steps themselves — with your support.

In our book, Go to Help: 31 Ways to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help, Sophie Riegel and I share ten questions to ask others to help them think through their own plan:

  1. Get specific: “What are you planning to do next?”
  2. Get positive: “What’s already working for you in this process?”
  3. Get buy-in: “What’s the opportunity here?”
  4. Get resourceful: “What else do you need to move forward?”
  5. Get realistic: “What do you need to stop doing to move forward with this?”
  6. Get collaborative: “Who else do you need to talk with/work with/align with?”
  7. Get mental: “What’s your current mindset?”
  8. Get tracking: “How will you measure progress?”
  9. Get prioritizing: “What step, if done first, will make other steps easier?”
  10. Get on board: “How else can I help?”

These questions may not be quick or easy for your colleague to answer. It may take them a little time to think through their responses. And, if you get the sense that they need more of a directive approach — especially if certainty is more important right now than commitment or creativity — you can help by answering these questions with them or for them. So, for example, rather than asking someone who is new to a task, “What else do you need to move forward?” (which they probably can’t know yet), your helping strategy might be telling them, “Here’s what else you’ll need to move forward…”

An Irish proverb shares, “You’ll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind.” By helping others reflect on their action plan, and then supporting them as they move forward with that plan, they’ll have a clearer, more committed path to getting their goals accomplished.

by Deborah Grayson Riegel


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