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Playing the Role of Coach

From Diane Cohen’s Blog

Someone I know works for a large retail corporation, and has been suffering fears of being fired recently. As he talks about his concerns, he speaks with anger and resignation about how other people tell him that he is being targeted to be fired and how unfair his manager is in his criticisms. As a friend, I engaged him in a dialogue about his work and the criticisms the manager was offering and asked for his objective view about the specific criticisms. It turned out that there were areas in which he thought he could improve.

After our discussion, he went to work with renewed vigor and determination to do all that he could to meet his manager’s expectations. He took my suggestion to not let his concerns about whether he was being targeted for dismissal stop him from focusing upon improving in the areas in which he knew he was not meeting standards.

In other words, I helped him consider the legitimate concerns of the other “party” — even though the other party was not present — and encouraged him to address those. In this case, he was well aware of what the concerns were, since he had had a review, but was not addressing them with determination. I helped him reality test his strategy of not adequately addressing the concerns of the other “party” and to evaluate the benefit or detriment to himself of taking the view that management was making excuses and just wanted him out.

Now, weeks later, he feels that he has made positive adjustments in his work and is doing a better job. Time will tell, as his next review is coming up at the end of the quarter. But surely, he has lost nothing in addressing the stated interests of the other party, and he is on the road to either improving his review or finding out more about what management is thinking.

As can be seen, I used all the precepts of mediation and applied them to coaching.

Often, we have the information we need to mediate concerns in our own life without involving a mediator. The trick is simply to convey our concerns to the other party and to hear and address their concerns. Employment reviews are just those types of situations. Often managers who give those reviews will be clear about where expectations may not be currently met, and how to improve. If the employee has legitimate concerns of his own, he also needs to be able to convey them to the manager and find a way to have them addressed. This can be difficult because employees feel that the power is in the hands of the manager. After all, they have the power to fire, to demote, to not promote, etc. They may feel that they do raise concerns, but that they are dismissed by the manager. Without a mediator present to ensure that the manager considers the concerns of the employee, there may be limits to what the employee can do on his own.

Despite the fact that I was only coaching the employee, rather than mediating the situation with both the employee and the manager present, it seemed effective. When last we spoke, he was talking about all he had done to improve his performance and how pleased he was with the job he was doing. Helping him get past the assumptions that stood in his way was half the battle. What were the assumptions? His self-defeating assumption in this case was that the manager had him targeted for firing and that nothing he could do would help. This was not productive because it stopped him from addressing the legitimate concerns of the manager. If he had continued on that path, he would have created a self-fulfilling prophecy: he would possibly have been fired and would have assumed he had been targeted.

The matter is ongoing, of course, because it remains to be seen whether other legitimate concerns exist on either the part of the employee or the part of the manager. Perhaps my acquaintance will find that he can do the job requested by the manager, but that it requires him to work ten hours a day. Perhaps the manager will have other concerns that he would like the employee to address. There needs to be a way for parties to raise such concerns with one another in their real world, and not necessarily in mediation. Mediation is often a luxury that is simply not available. Yet, much can be accomplished by one party considering the concerns of the other and trying to convey their own. If it turns out that my acquaintance has made a positive impression on his manager with the changes he has put into place, he will have improved his position and opened the door to the manager listening more seriously to any concerns he may have. As he becomes a more valuable employee, the balance of power may shift and the playing field may become a little more level. But regardless of whether there are imbalances in the power structure, the best chance for achieving goals is for the party to exercise good skills in listening and clear speaking, and to maintain a manner that is polite, respectful and focused.


Diane Cohen

Diane Cohen is a mediator in private practice and writes regularly on the process of mediation. Diane is an impasse mediator, and therefore mediates in all realms, but primarily in the family, divorce and workplace areas. Diane is a former co-president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater… MORE >

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