I have yet to come across a manager who at some point hasn't complained about subpar performance on his or her team. The common refrain I hear: "No matter what I do, I can't seem to get through."
I've also had many conversations over the years with managers who get frustrated about what to do -- but tend to fumble around. I've found a common theme there as well: Managers typically just want to tell the under-performers what to do and then expect them to follow through. More strikingly, they rarely, if ever, ask the employee to suggest a solution to the problem.
Here's where legions of line managers at companies of every size can significantly improve their abilities as team leaders and coaches: take a lesson from the folks in business who know how to teach and train -- professional trainers. Here are a few insights that every manager can learn from a training pro. (And I'm not just saying that because I am one.)
Ask, Don't Tell
Experienced trainers know that the least effective way to train someone is to just tell them what they need to know. The best trainers are facilitators of conversations with experienced adults who bring knowledge, skills, and experience to the table. Early in my training career, when someone asked a question, I would answer it like I thought I should. Then one day someone asked me a question and I didn't know the answer. But rather than say I didn't, I asked the class, "Does anyone know the answer to that?"
Guess what happened? Someone knew the answer, and from that day forward, I started using this technique -- even when I knew the answer. I found the class participating more and they were happy to share their own ideas. Managers could learn a lesson from adult learning theory by seeking answers from direct reports -- not their managerial peers or their own bosses.
Ask Some More
Like trainers, managers do not have to know all the answers. Keep playing the "facilitator" role. Rather than telling people what to do, managers should ask people how they think an issue -- whatever it might be -- could be solved. Learning is more effective when a class is participating and engaged in solutions.
Support the Solution
The key for managers to make this work is that, once a direct report offers a solution, the manager must support the solution and resist shooting it down. If the manager doesn't like the solution, he or she can ask more questions about alternatives, but it's counter-productive to object to the solution and go back to "telling." This will destroy any progress made towards having the direct report solve the problem.
Here's an exercise worth trying in your next performance conversation with someone on your team. Only ask questions. Do not offer any ideas about how the person should solve the issue, whatever it is. If they ask you what they should do, say something like, "Well, what do you think should be done?" And unless the idea is unethical, not related to work, or illegal -- respond with "Great idea. Go for it."
Try it -- and drop me a comment here and let me know how it worked.