The End of Command-and- Control: Power, Presence, and the Leader as Coach

By Melissa Gordon, Founder and CEO, EchelonCommunicate, LLC and SHRM-Atlanta Symposium Speaker

It often seems so much easier and far less time-consuming to just tell people what to do. With the pressure to deliver positive results in an ever-changing competitive market, time is always in short supply. But, while “command-and-control” leadership might feel more expedient, HR professionals know the costs better than anyone: it hurts workplace culture over the long-term; it weakens your ability to attract and retain quality talent; it stifles creativity and ownership, and it slows the speed at which decisions are made.  On the other hand, people who integrate a “coach approach” into their leadership style create a culture of safety and rigor, where employees and leaders challenge each other to do their best work and co-create results. This, in turn, builds trusted relationships–relationships that are critical to developing today’s workforce, in a workplace where we know that employee allegiance is to people, not to the company. [1]  The elements of a coach approach A “leader as coach” is someone who is on the sidelines, simultaneously observing and cheering on “the player in the game.” Because the coach is ultimately responsible for each player’s results, he/she continuously considers ways to help the player improve performance. How do you adopt the coach approach? It starts with being for your people, in connection with them, and as focused on developing them as you are on getting the work done. It’s reinforced by how you communicate – what you say, how you say it, how you come across. Characteristics of a “leader as coach” When you’re functioning as a coach in the truest sense, you use how you communicate to:

  • Set clear, mutually agreed-upon expectations
  • Engage in dialogue that is “more ask than tell”
  • Provide consistent, candid feedback
  • Treat people with respect
  • Give team members the authority to act and make decisions
  • Lead with questions that stimulate best thinking.

Communicating to create psychological safety. Leaders who have adopted the coach approach understand the nuances of communication. They have learned the right kinds of questions to ask and how to ask them, in order to gather the insight, information, and ideas they need.  They understand that the best information to support decision-making and aligned behaviors lies within their teams. However, getting to that information requires each leader to create an environment, a culture of trust, respect, and something so basic that it hearkens back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: “psychological safety.” Psychological safety + the language of coaching  Over the course of two years, involving 180 teams and 200 interviews, Google’s Project Aristotle discovered that when leaders create a culture of safety, team members feel safe and are more likely to speak up, share ideas, and offer insights. They are also more likely to be successful and less likely to leave. [2]

Creating a culture of psychological safety requires understanding and using the language of coaching. The subtleties of the words you choose impact the responses you receive, and whether or not your team will be open to sharing. For the past 15 years, EchelonCommunicate has been helping leaders embody a coach approach to build a culture of safety, trust, risk mitigation, and innovation using a variety of tools.

Structured dialogue. One of the most powerful of these language tools is Structured Dialogue, derived from the work of Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. A powerful dialogue tool Leaders want results and results come from people. Friction, unresolved conflict and lack of trust can get in the way. People often rush in to problem-solve when they don’t have all the facts. HR professionals see this all the time. The Structured Dialogue can be thought of as the “pre-work” that sets the climate and conditions for effective problem solving. It’s a three-step communications system that deepens connection, builds trust and helps leaders gather better information from key players. The key components of the Structured Dialogue tool help us see the value in building key behaviors into the way we hold dialogue:

  • Mirror: Repeat the other person’s words to affirm that what you heard is what they intended to communicate.
  • Validate: Acknowledge that the other person makes sense, without agreeing or endorsing.
  • Empathize: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and show that you care.

With the Structured Dialogue, you learn to connect on a deep human level, strengthen working relationships and ultimately get information that often resides below the surface. The connection created is critical to team performance and leaders’ ability to make the right decisions under pressure.

Questions matter. Questions are another key component of the language of coaching. In fact, how you ask a question often determines the quality of information you’ll receive (or the lack of it). You may have the intention to connect and collaborate, but without the right approach, people can become defensive. The type of questions you ask are equally important. They can’t be “curious” questions posing as a stacked deck with the presumed intention of placing blame. They also can’t appear to be passive-aggressive ways to check up on someone’s progress. There’s no room for finger-pointing or exploiting in the Structured Dialogue. The counterintuitive advantage of the coach approach A funny thing happens when you embrace the coach approach. You get your time back. The more trust your team has, the faster you get the right information at the right time, and the better equipped you are to help your team deliver results and create sustained success.

Melissa Gordon is Founder and President of EchelonCommunicate, LLC, a global consultancy. A recognized communication expert, award-winning media producer and executive coach, Melissa has worked with some of the world’s most successful organizations, including GE®, Coca-Cola®, Habitat for Humanity®, Emory University, IBM®, The Home Depot®, and CARE.® Melissa’s unique understanding of audience, message and language make her an outstanding facilitator and sought-after speech coach. Learn more about adopting coaching behaviors as you lead. Melissa and the EchelonCommunicate team will be presenting at Fearless Leadership At All Levels, SHRM-Atlanta’s Symposium, on August 21, 2018.

[1] Gallup 2015 report, State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders“

[2] New York Times, What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, 2/28/2016

How leaders can apply coaching communication techniques to raise their influence and team performance