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.
-Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

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.

Value of Changing Habits for Leaders

Character is the intersection of a variety of factors. Habits and values are two of those factors. Other people make judgments about your values from by observing your habits. When you tell people you value providing quality feedback to your followers, that is a statement of a value you hold. People who hear you observe your behavior and decide if you really value coaching and counseling your workers. When they see you counseling others, they know you value that behavior. On the other hand, if you never

A military leader using a battle drill. Battle drills are effective habits learned through repetition.

coach and counsel your employees, everyone knows you are all talk and counseling others really is not important to you. Given that habits are nothing more than routines people use to simplify life, then deciding to change your habits enables you to align your behavior with your stated values. When those habits involve influencing others, you become a better leader.

Anyone can apply the principals in this post to any habit they want to change or create. For the purpose of discussion, I will continue to use the counseling example from the introduction because it is a leadership task often overlooked by supervisors. The steps are simple; the principals sound.

The principals for changing habits are the same as those for problem solving. Work on one habit at a time. Understand what habit you want to change and why. Know the desired result. Develop a solid plan to implement change. Identify people for support. Steps for habit change include:

  • identifying the habit you want to change,
  • identifying the motivation for change,
  • identifying the cues or triggers, what is the routine, and what is your reward
  • identifying where in the cycle you can make a change,
  • developing a plan to implement the change,
  • evaluating your results.

Like setting a goal, you need to be specific about what habit you want to change. Provide answers to all the who, what, where, why, when, and how questions. Write down those answers. Writing down things helps organize the thought process. When you write down things, you can let those thoughts out of your head and delve deeper into your analysis of the habit.

In our example, you want to become a better counselor to those you supervise. Counseling helps them become better employees that work independently. Employees that work independently allow you to focus

Creating the habit of counseling requires leaders to examine hurdles that prevent execution. New habits continue once the ball starts rolling,

on the future so your group remains relevant to the organization. Your planning ensures mission accomplishment which creates happy customers. Happy customers develop loyalty improving everyone’s job security. So employee counseling is important.

Simon Sinek encourages us to start with why. Understanding WHY allows you to focus on your motivation. This helps you identify what is important to you. After you identify what is important, compare those values to your habitual actions in different situations or events. Ask yourself if those actions are congruent with your values. Sometimes your habits align with your values. Sometimes your habits run contrary to your values. You do not realize this until you analyze your habits.

In our example of counseling employees, you say it is important, yet at the end of every evaluation period you realize you did not counsel your employees. You identify it as a habit you want to develop. You identify your motivation for developing this habit as becoming an effective leader. You know effective leaders improve organizations.

Every habit has a cue or trigger. The cue is the signal to begin a routine outside your thought process. When the routine is complete, you receive some sort of reward. To change your habit, figure out the cue or trigger, identify the routine, and the reward. Take time to write down the answer to each part of the whole habit so you can better understand what happens.

In the case of counseling employees, identify what cues block counseling sessions. What actions or events prevent you from taking time to prepare and execute employee counseling? What rewards can you establish to encourage you to change your behavior? Write down your answers. Use this information to create cues to execute the counseling. Calendar reminders are simple and easy triggers to begin a habit you want to start.

Now that you understand the habit and your motivation for change, focus your attention on change you can invoke. Common strategies include recognizing where the cue or trigger is initiated and avoiding that trigger, substituting a different routine, or changing the reward for the old routine so the habit is not rewarding. Treat this part of the process like a science experiment. Try different approaches at different parts of the habit cycle until you find something that works. Be easy on yourself. Habits form to reduce the work our brain has to do. It takes time and repetition to break an old habit and create a new habit.

Preparing to counsel employees is a time intensive process. Once you develop a habit cycle, the process becomes easier because your mind creates shortcuts to execute the key parts of counseling. In addition to calendar reminders, notify the employee of a date and time for the counseling. If an employee knows about the ‘appointment’ they will help you prepare. The employee will remind you. They may offer ideas about topics they want to discuss during the counseling. Learn to take notes about performance during the week. Figure out which cues work to develop routines to make counseling easier.

As you move down the time continuum, measure the progress you made with your new habit. Figure out how it made your life better. Use this success to start a new habit cycle to align another habit with your values.

As you start to counsel your employees, you measure your progress from the documented counselings. Each session documents the time and person counseled. Use the data to learn whether you are meeting the intervals you wanted, or if you need to tweak your routine a bit to meet those time hacks. Figure out how you can measure the employees improvements from their regular meetings with you. Compare their new behaviors to those occurring before you started your counseling. At the end of a rating period, you find you have plenty of documentation to validate your evaluation.

As your habits become more aligned with your values, you develop character. People will believe you will do what you say because what you say, you do. They develop trust you are the person you say you are.

People follow leaders that walk the talk. You need to do what you say to develop power in order to influence your workers, peers, and senior leaders. Your habits either put you out front or at the end of the line.

As you begin to habitually counsel your employees, they learn you care about their success. They know you listen to what they say. They trust you to look out for their welfare by helping them improve. You become their role model; someone who has character. You developed the power to influence their behavior and they follow you. Your senior leaders heed your advice because of the improvements you demonstrated increasing your influence.

The foundation of leadership is character. Two defining factors of character are your values and habits. Your habits tell others what your values are. They see your values in everything you do. Creating habits aligned with your values increases the influence you have with senior leaders, your peers, and those who report to you. Often leadership instruction sounds much like personal self-improvement. However, when you create new habits you develop power and influence, create trust, and cause the change you desire in others through your own actions. When your words and actions influence others you are a leader regardless of your title. Analyze your habits. Increase your influence. Become a better leader.

Photo Credits

  • Red Smoke —, CC0, no additional attribution available
  • People Talking — by mentatdgt from, CC0
  • Geese in Formation —, CC0, no additional attribution available

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