Reviewing Three Leadership Conversations

Taking time to counsel, coach, and mentor others improves performance. These behaviors build trust and demonstrate you value relationships and results.
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This article wraps up the series on using counseling, coaching, and mentoring; three ways to lead others ethically and effectively. These methods of communication develop people in positive ways. Perfection of this skill is not required for others to benefit from your efforts. Using these communication methods reduces the need for difficult conversations because most people come to work with the intent of doing good work. Counseling is a process to improve performance and raise awareness of followers. Mentoring is a voluntary relationship outside the ordinary lines of authority, in which a trusted guide helps another grow. Coaching is an approach common to both processes. People working in organizations that provide positive counseling, coaching, and mentoring perform better, improving the success of those organizations.

These three conversations fall on a supervisory spectrum from more to less supervision.
-Diagram by author

Counseling is often used as a tool to correct poor performance. This is an appropriate use of this tool, however, leaders who fail to counsel people performing well miss opportunities to reinforce positive performance. Counseling others is probably more important when people are performing well because they know you are paying attention and what they are doing meets expectations. People walk away from these discussions energized, knowing their efforts are appreciated.

Counseling is a behavior exercised by supervisors leading others. It is a discussion that focuses on performance behaviors and outcomes. When used well, it develops positive relationships and results. It is not therapy. Most organizational leaders are not mental health professionals. If you determine problem performance behaviors are the result of mental health issues, you should refer the person to your employee assistance program or other mental health service provider.

Often leaders only use counseling as an influence tool when others are performing poorly. Counseling is most effective when used to reinforce positive behaviors. Reinforcing positive behaviors prevent slides into poor performance. With fewer issues of poor performance, there is less need for difficult conversations all leaders dislike.

During counseling sessions, leaders have the opportunity to review organizational vision, goals, and values. Structure your discussions about observed behaviors around how well or poorly those behaviors conform to the vision, goals and values. Using this approach reinforces those governing ideas, and ensures others understand how those ideas should influence their decisions and behaviors.

Mentoring is the process of an experienced guide helping another find the path to success. Ideally, this happens outside supervisory channels. Doing so allows the protégé to candidly admit mistakes that potentially violate organizational rules, resulting in exposure to punishment.

Mentors are trusted guides. Ideally, mentors are not in the supervisory channel.
-Photo by Andrew St. Cyr

Mentoring relationships are voluntary. Typically, they span an agreed period of time for the purpose of helping the protégé achieve a particular goal. While the last sentence implies the relationship is temporary, that does not have to be the case. A mentor can be someone known by the protégé for a long time. They may continue to associate after reaching the desired achievement. The mentoring part of the relationship ends with the achievement.

Mentoring relationships are structured by each participant to meet their needs. Typically, the first meeting or two sets out the expectations, and the goal. Participants agree to how frequently they meet and how meetings will be conducted. Each typically has some assignment to complete before the next meeting.

Coaching is a skill of helping others in counseling and mentoring processes of finding ways to solve their own problems. Through the use of skilled questions, the coach guides the other to examine knowledge about the topic to reach a decision. Sometimes the decision is the need to find more information about the topic or a requirement to develop a skill. Coaching continues in both processes as appropriate.

While leaders should work to be more coach like in their mentoring and supervisory sessions, they must also understand that professional coaching is hard work. The intent for most leaders is to be more coach like, helping people use what they already know to improve.

Workplace coaching commonly revolves around quality questions. Avoid why questions. They are frequently translated as casting blame. Better questions begin with what and how. Some include:

What is on your mind?

Questions allow the other person to identify what they already know.
-Photo by author.

What is going on when ______ happens?

What behaviors have you found effective/ineffective when ____ happens?

How do you like to be approached when ____ happens?

How can you communicate this preference to others?

What do you hope to achieve?

What are some solutions you already consider?

What do you need from me to move forward?

While not a question, “Tell me all about…”, or “Tell me more about…”, are two comments that help the other person expand on areas of the conversation. Asking for more allows them to make connections to issues they may not realize have important implications. They also help you understand more about the person’s responses.

Counseling, coaching, and mentoring are three conversations leaders can use to create positive performance and improve results. Leaders avoid difficult conversations because they are hard. Taking time to engage in activities that reinforce and promote positive behaviors reduces the number of hard conversations required. Realize, most people show up everyday expecting to do good work that provides some sort of meaning in their lives. Counseling, coaching, and mentoring conversations help people grow, including the leader. They provide leaders opportunities to communicate organizational goals, values, and its vision for the future. The mindful application of these leadership behaviors influences others in positive ways. That does not mean you need to spend days planning for the conversation. As you start using these conversations more, you grow as a leader and allow those you lead to grow as well. Start using counseling, coaching, and mentoring to influence others and fertilize growth to the fullest potential.

Buil, I., Martinez, E, & Matute, J. (2019) Transformational leadership and employee performance: The role of identification, engagement and proactive personality. International Journal of Hospitality Management. Vol. 77, PP 64-75.

Fitch, B. (2011). Focus on supervision; The two roles of supervision in performance counseling. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 1, 2011.

Hannang. A., Salju, and Qammaruddin, M. (2020). The effect of supervision levels on employees’ performance levels. Advances in Social Science, Education, and Humanities Research, vol 477. Atlantis Press.

Stanier, M. B. (2016). The coaching habit. (Kindle Edition). Box of Crayons Press and Bright Wing Books. Toronto, ON

Wise, W. (2016). Ask powerful questions; Create conversations that matter. Audiobook. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.