We’re only three months into the new year and the coronavirus has turned the world upside down for most people. As leaders, the job of inspiring and empowering our employees has become much more difficult now that everyone is working remotely. Staying connected to each of our reports while collectively balancing working from home, managing family life and keeping healthy has become much more challenging.
While it’s impossible to maintain “business as usual” when circumstances change immensely on a global scale, there are still some things we do have control over. I offer three ways coaching principles can help leaders engage, empower and support their teams as they work to overcome the obstacles and changing circumstances during this strenuous time.
First, don’t dwell on the interference. Let’s think of “interference” as anything that gets in the way of progress, whether it be on the sports field, at home or at work.
My company, InsideOut Development, recently conducted a study on this topic and found that most employees (61 percent) experience interference at work every day, which keeps them from performing at their highest level. Now that our working conditions have drastically changed, I imagine that number has jumped to 100 percent. From external interference like working at home, restricted travel and cancelled sales events to internal interference like worrying about our health, stressing about the unknown or even losing loved ones to COVID-19, the interferences we face are at an all-time high.
As business leaders and managers, it’s important that we acknowledge and empathize with the problems our teams face. Open communication and check-ins using open-ended questions like “What’s working? Where are you getting stuck? What can we do differently?” can be helpful in engaging empathetically and gathering insight in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way.
Second, choose what to focus on. A basic principle of performance is that everything we do is driven by what we choose to pay attention to. As Maura Thomas, author of “Attention Management” put it: “You must control your attention to control your life.”
One workplace study found an average of almost 87 interruptions per day (an average of 22 external interruptions with 65 triggered by the person themself). And now that we’re in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the 24-hour news cycle is also demanding our attention with real-time updates hitting us from all angles. Social media and a constant influx of information (most of it negative) is triggering a fight-or-flight response for many people, creating even more interference. Asking your colleagues, “Where’s your focus?” can help them recognize whether they are listening to the voice in their mind “horrible-izing” about things being out of their control or paying attention to something on which they can take action.
In challenging times like these, while we can’t ignore these concerns entirely, it becomes even more important to focus on the steps that will move us forward rather than the interference. Sports psychologists call it “getting in the zone,” and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it the “state of flow.” As we move toward this state, interference decreases and our performance improves.
Third, create an action plan. It’s easy to talk about ignoring interference and achieving a state of flow, but when the time comes to write that email you’ve been putting off or finalize that strategy plan, our phone will buzz with a new CNN article or we’ll think about all the obstacles we face, and suddenly we’ll be back where we started. Focusing on interference is the worst thing we can do for our performance and often slows our decision-making ability. Instead of focusing on what’s stopping us, coaching encourages us to focus on what we can do.
In the practice of coaching, a powerful way to help someone realize what they can do is to have them write out an action plan. More than 25 years ago, I co-created the GROW Model — Goal, Reality, Options, Way Forward — to help coaches and their coachees create a step-by-step plan for achieving their goals. Here are some tips for using this model.
- Goal: Given recent circumstances, goals might need to change, and that’s ok. Consider your own goals or work with your reports to discuss what needs to happen to make sure the goal is still attainable yet motivating.
- Reality: Make sure to separate what you know to be true (observable events) from your thoughts and feelings about those events (opinions).
- Options: Difficult times sometimes call for difficult questions, such as: “If not reaching the goal is not an option, what might you do?”
- Way Forward: What is the one thing you can do that moves you one step forward? Act now. You can always course-correct later.
From our research, three characteristics of great coaching conversations are that they are experienced as caring, candid and constructive. In these challenging times, though it can feel more difficult, it is even more imperative to do these things.
I have heard the three basic fears for us human beings described as fear of not being in control, not being secure and not being approved of. A coaching approach — asking open-ended questions that help the coachee develop their own solution — can help mitigate these fears by helping us get into their world and help them work with what they do have influence over.