How to Coach Co-Workers: 5 Steps to Success

One man bands have no place in today's flat, matrixed organizations

Do you have a co-worker who is under-performing and it’s affecting the morale and results of the team? Or perhaps a prickly teammate who is savvy at completing tasks but leaves a path of bodies in her wake? If so, you’re not alone—nearly all of my clients have asked me at some point during our time together about how to coach a co-worker.

It takes courage, commitment, and character, and it’s made more difficult in today’s flat, matrixed organizations. Task forces succeed or fail on the commitment and contributions of each team member.

Coaching in a matrixed task force

Enter Hannah*: She’s a bright, creative, and energized professional who was called to lead an important task force in her organization. The end-game of the assignment was to recommend a technology solution for recruiting.

As an individual contributor, this was a great opportunity for Hannah her to shine through her ability to lead a matrixed team. Almost immediately she noticed that Conrad*, one of her peers and fellow task force member, was showing signs of resentment, likely because he was not selected to lead the team. He was dragging his feet and passive-aggressively missing agreed-upon deadlines—signs that he did not respect Hannah’s leadership.

To make matters worse, he began showing up late to meetings and had a track record of not replying to Hannah’s emails requesting status updates. The situation put a strain on the team and was keeping Hannah up at night.

By the time Hannah came to me, she was frustrated, tired, and quite frankly, stuck. Sound familiar?

Five steps to coaching co-workers

But she didn’t stay stuck for long. Here’s how Hannah coached her co-worker (and started sleeping thorough the night):

  1. Get some rest. No kidding – it’s easy to feel like the victim of someone else’s blatant ignorance/maliciousness/incompetence when we are tired and stressed. It’s amazing what a good night of rest will do to help us see the full picture – and to see that the “coachee” is probably not the Spawn of Satan. He’s just doing what makes sense to him based on his background. For Hannah, this meant realizing that Conrad had long been rewarded for his tenure in the organization and for working independently, so he probably felt threatened by the new “whipper snapper” who came onto the scene and was chosen over him to lead the project. For him, it probably felt like the rules of the game had changed, and suddenly innovative thinking was valued over experience. Once Hannah realized that, she could see Conrad with softer eyes and greater understanding.
  2. Base feedback in behaviors. (READ: not in PERSONALITY). As you’re preparing to give the feedback, ask yourself what actions are ineffective rather than focusing on what you feel are personality flaws. This means that while Hannah may have felt that Conrad was lazy/entitled/selfish, telling him that would have been counterproductive. Instead, she made a list of the top three behaviors she observed that were holding the team back: missing deadlines, arriving late to meetings, and not replying to her emails. Then she identified the risks to the task force if the behaviors didn’t change, ranging from resentment in the team to failing to meet the audit deadline.
  3. Find your own fingerprints. Hannah admitted that because she and Conrad were peers, she came to the task force with preconceived notions about him; namely that his mindset was that experience should be more important than leading change. The combination of that filter and her admitted dislike of conflict resulted in her delaying the conversation with him – and that allowed for more missed deadlines.  That was her contribution to the problem, and she admitted it, both to herself and to him.
  4. Partner, don’t point. Instead of telling Conrad what he needed to do differently, Hannah asked him what he needed from her to be successful. By expressing the desire to partner in the success of the project rather than pointing the finger at Conrad, Hannah showed her commitment to success—even if it meant a little more work for her. And…bazinga…Conrad asked her to meet one-on-one each week to ensure he was meeting expectations. Simple solution, and (added bonus!) it gave Hannah peace of mind as well.
  5. Appreciate, don’t wait. I also call this idea “catch ‘em doing it right” —and thank them. Anytime we’re shifting an old behavior, we need positive reinforcement to overcome the prior bad habit.  So Hannah thanked Conrad in-person each time he completed a task ahead of the deadline, and soon she found that they were celebrating the success of entire project! Plus, she started sleeping through the night again!

Try these five steps the next time you’ve got a co-worker who could use a little coaching, and please let me know how it goes.  In the meantime, I’ll be toasting Hannah’s courage, commitment, and character—in service to the success of the project and in service to developing a co-worker into a more effective teammate!

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the successful!).

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Avatar for Amber Lineback

Amber Lineback

Amber will tell you that her passion is learning — in all its forms. “I believe it happens when we bump into something different,” she says, “Whether it is experiencing a different culture through travel or helping a team work through conflict. Growth is a life-long process, and there’s a wise saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I get a kick out of being the student as much as being the teacher.”