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Coaching Up

Flowing feedback upward in your organization

We are disinclined to bite the hand that feeds us. This basic truth means that most learning which happens as a result of differences of opinion and direct feedback from others will primarily go in a downward direction in an organization’s hierarchy. And most organizations do almost nothing to coax learning upward through the hierarchy. The most common method is an employee satisfaction or engagement survey. But anonymous surveys that aim to drive feedback upward through the organization are no substitute for the depth of learning that comes from a thoughtful feedback conversation.

Leaders shouldn’t have to wait around for survey results to discover insights on their performance. Nevermind all the issues created by a survey in which the feedback is an anonymous transaction on the part of the sender. Some employees take advantage of this to position anger and grievance as insight, further complicating the learning challenge for leaders.

This doesn’t have to be the fate of important leadership learning in organizations. There is a better way to keep feedback flowing upward in your organization. It’s called “coaching up.”

Coaching up is an important skill that all employees should learn. When coaching up is done well, it doesn’t resemble the kind of no-holds-barred anonymous feedback in an employee survey. Instead it is a thoughtful conversation between two people who feel accountable to each other. To be successful in providing coaching up feedback, the employee should honor a few fundamentals in their approach:

No judgment. Successful coaches are grounded in a commitment to not judging others. Resist the temptation to judge your boss’ behavior. You’re not going to get far if you approach the conversation loaded with judgment, frustration, or annoyance. It often helps to remember that everyone is imperfect and worthy of grace.
Focus on feelings. Rather than diving into a conversation about the practical (problem solving) efficacy of your boss’ actions, focus on how your boss’ actions made you feel. For example, “When you sent your feedback in email on Friday afternoon, it surprised me and I worried about it all weekend.”
Ask empowering questions. Coaches empower insight and commitment when they come from a place of caring and curiosity, rather than accusation. Consider these two questions:

  • Empowering: “What outcome were you most hoping to achieve?”
  • Accusing: “Why did you do that?”

Be kind. Being kind is different from being nice. Kindness means staying in non-judgment and keeping perspective by imagining what an objective third party would think of the situation. But kindness does not mean providing platitudes in circumstances that violate your values. Stand firm (kindly) on what you will not tolerate.

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