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This article was published on March 13, 2015

Coaching employees in the new economy

Coaching employees in the new economy
David Hassell
Story by

David Hassell

David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - including continuous employee feedback, objective tracking (OKRs), pulse surveys, and peer recognition. Named "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley" by Forbes Magazine, David has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and the Financial Post. You can learn more about 15Five and David Hassell at www.15five.com.

David Hassell is Founder & CEO of 15Five, web-based communication software that elevates the performance of managers, employees and entire organizations by initiating weekly conversations that quickly uncover achievements, challenges, and risks. Learn how David and his team are helping companies inspire greatness in their people at www.15five.comThis post originally appeared on the 15Five Blog

Are people fixed in terms of their abilities or can they grow into virtually unlimited potential? Is an employee just a replaceable resource, or a whole human being complete with emotional, physical, mental and spiritual experiences?

Today’s best managers believe that their employees are more than just fixed assets. They have shifted away from the role of commanding boss to supportive coach, by creating space for employees to live great lives and do great work. As a result, employees become self-motivated, bring higher energy into the office, grow in their roles and lives, and become more loyal to the company.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Let the research speak for itself…

The adult mind is not fixed


I recently read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, who explains that even as children we adopt either a fixed or growth mindset. We approach challenging situations with one of these responses, a modality we take with us into our adult lives and careers.

She conducted a study where children were given a puzzle that they could easily accomplish. They were then offered to take on a more complex puzzle. Some children jumped-in enthusiastically while others had a feeling of resistance. What is behind this discrepancy in behavioral responses?

The first group saw the challenge as an opportunity to grow, and even if they failed there was no impact to their self-esteem. These children were much more likely to take on new challenges. The second group had a fixed mindset specifically around their respective personalities and levels of intelligence. From that place, taking on a really tough challenge was risky because it might prove that they were not as smart as they thought. It was safer to only perform easier tasks that would prove their worth.

As I read this, I realized that I have a mixed mindset. I have a growth mindset around many tasks like learning to ski or kite-surf, while other aspects like intelligence seem fixed. Part of this is the result of a lifetime of taking tests for academic aptitude (SATs), or for competence and intelligence (IQ). Employers and schools use these assessments to place people at a specific level, and like many people I believed that the results were static.


But Dweck explains that Psychologist William Stern who invented the IQ score, actually believed that our IQ is not fixed. Assessments for intelligence quotient were intended to evaluate a person so that they could improve. Only later did they become adopted to promote a fixed attribute of intelligence.

Our education system, with its standardized testing, often supports the false belief that we are fixed in our abilities based on our scores and grades. This shuts down all possibility for improving because we adopt a belief that we are fixed as we are. There is no benefit in taking on challenges, only the risk that we will discover we are even less intelligent than the numbers declare.

The science of growth

Not only can you improve your competence at a particular discipline as a child and as an adult, but you can also improve your intelligence. There is a body of research emerging in the field of neuroplasticity that even as adults we can change our behaviors and ways of being to up-level our intelligence.

Illustration of Brain Storming

The following is the result of 40 years of neuroplasticity research and was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Neural Plasticity:

“Within the last four decades, our view of the mature vertebrate brain has changed significantly. Today it is generally accepted that the adult brain is far from being fixed. A number of factors such as stress, adrenal and gonadal hormones, neurotransmitters, growth factors, certain drugs, environmental stimulation, learning, and aging change neuronal structures and functions.”

So saying I am limited by what the test scores say is in itself a fixed-mindset that is completely inaccurate. When employees are placed in environments where they are stimulated, encouraged to learn and grow, and they are not overly stressed, they can be empowered to achieve more than they previously thought possible. The goal is not to focus on anyone’s limitations but rather to focus on the possibilities and develop strategies to achieve the desired results.

One step back, two steps forward

We are at an inflection point in history where people are demanding a return to being seen and treated as human beings. According to a recent New Republic article, In Praise of Meaningless Work, prior to the mass manufacturing of the industrial revolution, we had an artisan economy. We did not yet choose to use human beings as parts in an assembly-line.

People had skilled trades and a sense of meaning, pride, and growth in their work. Yet overnight they were essentially being treated like robots. Skill and creativity were employed by the few people who designed the assembly line, but actual line-workers were droids. They had to work fast and hard, doing the same repetitive tasks under difficult conditions.
robots using computers

In the article, Joe Keohane discusses the conflict between management who treated workers like numbers and people who demanded to be treated as human beings:

“Toiling under the stopwatch, workers began to complain of stress. Profits soared and antagonism bloomed. Marx’s theory of alienated labor, in which workers inevitably become commodities themselves, began to bear out. Since then, it’s been a lopsided tug-of-war between the emotional needs of humanity and the imperatives of corporate profits.”

The management philosophy that prevails today is based on an outdated model: How do we provide incentives and rewards to get the most output from employees? As a result we are seeing more and more leaders and companies pushing against the remnants of that. In many industries, command and control is still in charge.

But there is a shift occurring and we can see it in the language of the workplace. Many employees are using the word manager instead of boss. A boss is in charge. He gives the orders the employee has to follow them and provide output. That works to some extent if the objective is to get people to do rote things reliably and consistently without any differentiation, creative input, or personal contribution.

angry boss

The “manager as boss” paradigm leaves no space for people to bring their own genius into the equation. People are seen as fixed extensions of management in terms of their capabilities. People can’t improve and the manager’s output is limited by the time he has to micromanage. The whole team’s capacity is then limited by what the manager knows about an employee’s job.

If that same manager removes himself just one degree, employees have the greatest chance to develop a high level of skill and the manager gains freedom to pursue other responsibilities. The answer is to shift the paradigm even further – from boss to manager to coach.

Coaching is the new managing

Managers in the knowledge-worker economy see that their people are not tools, assets, or resources. They realize that their success as managers is limited by the success of the team, and that the potential of their people is way higher than they are currently performing. Without even making a new hire or replacing the “parts of the team”, managers can coach their employees to operate at a much higher level than they are today.

Just look at sports. No high-level professional athlete or team has gotten anywhere without great coaching. The coach has the strategy and the vision, and supports each of the individual players in becoming their best. Here are some suggestions for coaching an employee to get to the next level:

1. Give people leeway to make mistakes. There is a certain level of what is appropriate for both the employee and the company. The employee should experience some stress, eustress (positive stress) is good but distress can push people into failure.

Use ‘sink or swim’, but don’t drown them. Take a five-foot tall person and throw them into a pool that’s four feet deep and the experience is scary, but they are in no real danger. They can simply stand to avoid drowning. Throw them in the deep end and if they get scared, they may never want to get near the pool again.

2. Take calculated risks. Get people out of their comfort zones. Allow them to stretch and make small mistakes. Don’t give someone so much autonomy beyond their capabilities that they are going to make really big mistakes that will negatively impact the team or the company.

brave risk stepping off edge

3. Have an honest conversation. Tell an employee, ”this is a really big deal & I want you involved, but I am concerned about you having full autonomy. Let’s work together and let me have your back.”

4. Ask Questions. In the introduction to Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Coaching Employees, leadership coach Ed Batista discusses that a leader’s impact is not in telling people what to do but in empowering and motivating them. Batista believes that the simplest place to start is by asking questions. Use this practice to “help them fulfil their immediate responsibilities more effectively and advance their development as professionals over time”.

Coaching may seem intimidating at first, especially for managers that have little to no experience. But employees in the new economy demand more than just telling them what to do. Try asking the team questions every week so that the right conversations regularly take place, employees can self-reflect on their accomplishments, and managers can support them in achieving their true potential.

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