Coach the Promise, Not the Problem

How to foster excellence without bringing people down

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

This is an essay about how to coach your team. It’s also an essay about how to plant your own seeds of self-improvement without getting stuck in the dirt.

Let’s say you have a young, enthusiastic designer on your team — call him Jerome. Jerome is great at spinning up software prototypes quickly and has impressively strong aesthetic instincts for someone his age.

He also has a habit of showing up to meetings late. What do you say to him?

Technique is Foundational

Being good at the technical details of your work is a foundational requirement for delivering great work. You can’t be a great product manager if you don’t know how to run meetings. You can’t be a great writer if you don’t understand grammar. You can’t be a great Jerome if you’re late.

For an employee like Jerome, technique is incredibly important. For a leader like you, it’s also a huge trap.

The trap is that focusing too much on technique shifts our attention away from the stuff we want to be steering towards. We can become so focused on not making mistakes that we lose sight of the magic.

Worse still, if we’re not careful, a focus on technique can warp our internal narratives into unhelpful ones. If you focus solely on correcting Jerome’s mistakes, you might inadvertently slip into believing that Jerome is a bundle of mistakes. If Jerome’s not paying attention, you could infect him with the belief that he’s a bundle of mistakes. If he is paying attention, he’ll find a new manager.

Left unchecked, these unhelpful beliefs can fester and spread. Jerome’s story about himself affects his attitude, and his attitude affects the morale of those around him. Pretty soon no one wants to be on your team — particularly not the designers you want: prompt ones, with even more talent and experience than Jerome.

How do you coach people out of bad habits without breaking their spirits?

Fostering Healthy Stories

Your challenge is to coach people on the nitty-gritty boring details of their job while holding onto the belief that they are talented and competent teammates.

You could say, “Hey, Jerome, here at Elite Consulting Firm, we take professionalism very seriously. It’s tremendously inappropriate for you to show up to meetings late.”

Or you could say,

“Jerome! I’m having a lot of fun working with you. I especially love your consistent drive towards pragmatism, your enthusiasm, and your willingness to get your hands dirty. Frankly, it feels like you’re punching above your weight class as a junior designer. We’d get even more of that if you consistently showed up to meetings on time.”

Which do you think is more likely to get Jerome to change?

In the first example, you’re focussing on Jerome’s mistakes. In the second, you’re helping him show up as his best self. You’re leveraging a narrative (Jerome has the makings of a great designer) that is going to help Jerome grow.

Stance Versus Script

I want to stress that this is not a script for delivering feedback. This is an internal stance I am asking you to hold. Hold the correct stance, and you’ll get the words right. Hold the wrong stance and no amount of careful scripting will help you.

It’s not necessary to be a wild fan of the people you’re working with. Your story about them can be fairly neutral: “Jerome can get better,” or “Jerome is a good person.” It’s sufficient to believe that people can change and to approach them with kindness.

Frankly, if Jerome already knows that you see him as fundamentally competent, you can deliver that feedback any way you want. The more that Jerome knows you trust him and are invested in his growth, the more blunt you get to be with critical feedback. If he suspects that you see him as a collection of mistakes, each piece of critical feedback you give him is going to reinforce that belief.

The real challenge is to practice this on yourself.

Self-Betterment Without Self-Belittlement

Many of us find it easier to view our peers with forgiveness and optimism than to view ourselves that way. When we try to change ourselves, the trap of technique can be particularly insidious. We spend a lot of time focusing on the parts of ourselves that seem lacking, inadequate, and broken. Eventually, we start regarding our selves as lacking, inadequate, and broken.

My challenge for you is to pick something you want to work on and use it as an excuse to work on your narrative skills. Pick something small: making your bed daily, or eating more vegetables. The habit itself is actually secondary. This is a practice of engaging in self-betterment without engaging in self-belittlement. As you track your progress, notice the self-talk that comes up. Do your steps towards self-improvement churn up old thoughts of not-enoughness? That’s fine, that’s natural. You’re digging through the garden of your mind and occasionally you’re going to hit some rocks. Simply discard them gently.