Avoid the number one pitfall when using a coaching approach with your team

Many of my clients are already high performers. They are also committed to developing people and fostering a culture of learning and growth. They adopt a leader-as-coach approach, empowering and supporting their team members to find their own solutions rather than telling them what to do.

Yet I see some of these high-performing leaders inadvertently undermine themselves and end up working harder than necessary due to their own desire to meet deadlines and deliver quality work.

When they’re up against a deadline they feel cannot be changed, and a team member fails to deliver what was expected, they work late or on the weekend to ensure the deliverable meets the expected standard.

This might appear as a heroic act of leadership, but it results in negative repercussions for both the leader and the team. It’s akin to teaching someone to fish, but you end up catching the fish and cooking it while they show up for dinner.

When people are held accountable, you still establish clear expectations, actively listen, ask open-ended questions, and create space for people to think and receive constructive feedback. But importantly, you also ensure that people are held responsible for their commitments and outcomes.

The absence of accountability is the missing ingredient from the fish dinner, and it’s a common occurrence.

Gallup research found that only 40% of employees surveyed strongly agreed that their manager held them accountable for their performance goals. However, Gallup also found a big upside to holding employees accountable for their performance: Those employees were 2.5 times more likely to be engaged at work.

When you fail to hold team members accountable, it signals to your team that it’s okay to deliver sub-par work because you will step in and fix issues or accept poor quality work. Unfortunately, this diminishes team members’ sense of ownership and responsibility for their work. You may end up constantly overburdened, resenting the additional out-of-hours work and may even be unaware that you are feeding this vicious cycle of underperformance.

If you’re committed to growing your team, remember what American author and consultant Patrick Lencioni once said: “Failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness.”

When your team experiences an inconsistent culture of accountability, they miss out on valuable learning experiences and opportunities to improve their skills. And that development will reduce the burden on you.

Sustaining your and your team’s high performance means balancing your coaching and accountability skills. Otherwise, you will be like a chef who spends hours preparing a gourmet meal only to serve it on a dirty plate.

However, if you’ve fallen into the trap of jumping in and fixing things in the face of immovable deadlines, I’m not suggesting you should start missing important deadlines just so you can start holding a team member to account.

You need to use sound judgement about what to push back on to begin resetting your shared understanding of what being accountable means in practice.

Look for lower-risk opportunities to restate expectations, provide constructive feedback and then hold the person to account for delivering what is required.

For example, imagine you asked a team member to provide information in a specific form at a set time ahead of a meeting with them, but they deliver it late, and you can tell at a glance it’s not what you asked for. Instead of proceeding with the meeting, restate what was required and explain that the meeting will be rescheduled when you receive what was requested.

If you’re worried about a higher-risk deliverable not meeting expectations while you’re in the process of resetting the relationship, avoid letting them deliver what they want when they want. Be specific about what you expect to see when, schedule coaching-focused check-ins, provide constructive feedback and ensure they have time to thoughtfully revise and resubmit.

If timeframes are tight and won’t allow this, avoid taking it all on yourself. Use the tight timeframe as a coaching opportunity and, at minimum, support them in completing the work. That may mean sitting with them in their workspace as they produce what is required or co-creating the deliverable over the phone or in a virtual meeting. The key is to involve them in the process of delivering, to not let them off the hook and get them to reflect to you what they learned about how to produce the work to the required standard and how that will change how they approach similar work in the future.

Holding people to account is not easy, but it is necessary and rewarding. Remember to start with lower-risk deliverables and persevere. Over time, you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes – for you and them.

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