Stop Feeling Like a Pinball: Four Foundations of Effective Performance Coaching That Take Just a Few Minutes a Day

By Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

A new year brings the opportunity to apply learnings from the previous year and plan for areas where you want to improve. One thing I’ve seen over my years of coaching are leaders who go through their days bouncing from place-to-place and task-to-task, at the end of the day, feel as though they’ve not accomplished any of the work they planned.

antique-pinball-machine-with-ball-in-motion-picture-id481128619If you’ve played pinball, you know how the ball bounces around under constant pressure from gravity, obstacles, and flippers. Some days, you may feel like the pinball! Often, our days can feel like working inside a pinball machine; moving from problem to problem each day, tackling issues as they emerge, or re-emerge. Many regularly spend too much time monitoring people, micromanaging with too much double- and triple-checking. This style is difficult, exhausting, and creates a continuous cycle of rework and apathy. Ask a harried leader, “What did you get done today?” and many would grumble, “nothing!” However, if you look closely, usually a lot gets done. Unfortunately, it’s not always the work that was planned or the people development work that will prevent similar issues in the future. The time and opportunities for helping others grow their own capacity often gets pushed aside. However, coaching others – helping others expand their skills – need not be time consuming, laborious work. Effective coaching can be efficient and impactful, if done purposefully and consistently. And as your coaching skills improve, the value you add to others will improve as well.

Below are four foundations of effective performance coaching that you can put into practice, in just a few minutes each day.

  1. Plan for your daily coaching interactions

Planned coaching is a practice that sets great coaches apart from those who want to be great coaches. In other words, good coaches praise positive work when they see it or hear about it and correct mistakes as they occur. This is a balanced but reactive approach. On the other hand, great coaches are proactive by identifying desired behaviors in advance, seeking out opportunities to see or hear about them, and maintaining focus until the behavior becomes consistent in the coachee’s work day-to-day. Great coaches recognize the subtle differences between what top performers do and what others do, and they try to help others build consistency into these practices. They ask themselves, “What do I want to see people doing today?” and they initiate discussions related to these.

  1. Follow-up and check in                        

Build in dedicated time to follow up on your coaching efforts. Initiate quick, precise, check-ins, focused on business-critical behaviors. Spend the few minutes, asking someone about how these behaviors are working for them. You can learn a great deal by asking pointed, probing questions that allow people to describe what they have done and the benefits they see. In each successive interaction, pay attention to small changes in their behavior; to the adjustments they are making, to the subtle refinements, and slight differences in impact and reactions they are receiving.

  1. Link to “natural reinforcement”

Ultimately, these coaching interactions should help people recognize the small effects they have on the people and processes around them and help them link their own behavior to these effects. We want people to actively look for indicators around them that suggest that the small adjustments, small improvements, and movement in the right direction are making a difference. We want to help people notice how their behavior impacts others and contributes to achieving targeted results and the organization’s mission and values. The most immediate and consistent reinforcers are those “built into” the environment  ̶  those that are a direct result of the behavior. Those are referred to as natural reinforcers as they are not required to be artificially arranged. In other words, these “naturally occurring” reinforcers can be described as “what happens when the behavior works” for the performer. For example, positive customer comments often serve as natural reinforcers for customer service behaviors; less required effort is often a natural reinforcer for trying a new process; improved quality reinforces the use of operating procedures; and role play helps people become more comfortable and more skilled at the behaviors they practice.

  1. Assess your impact

Be purposeful about determining if your coaching is having the influence in the way that you intend. Look for evidence that people are doing more of the things that you are encouraging them to do and less of the things that you are discouraging as a result of the interactions with you. Often, asking these kinds of “value questions” (i.e. am I adding value with my coaching?) directly is an effective strategy. For example, you might ask, “what will you do or say differently (or have you done differently) as a result of our discussion?” Listen, then, for clear examples of what they are doing, as well as examples of how you had an influence. Note any vague, abstract, or ambiguous response and consider if the answer suggests an actionable step they have taken. This self-assessment becomes your continuous improvement process as you maintain your focus on the relationship between your impact and your intention.

Coaching with intention that inspires others and helps grow their capacity is one of the most consequential contributions any leader can make to their organization and its mission. Translating this into an efficient process, with frequent check-ins that connect work to meaning, values, and impact, will help transform your daily experience, limiting the bouncing from problem to problem, and allow you to execute with a more forward-looking, strategic approach.

Topics: Leadership, Communicating with Teams, Coaching

Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

Written by Ken Wagner, Ph.D.