Put me in, coach!

Leadership coaching not only helps address problems, but plants seed for better overall communication


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Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is giving us an unwanted but first-hand demonstration of the terrible consequences of unresolved conflict and the inability to resolve challenges through ongoing dialogue.

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Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is giving us an unwanted but first-hand demonstration of the terrible consequences of unresolved conflict and the inability to resolve challenges through ongoing dialogue.

In workplace conflicts, employees will hunker down to protect themselves, cliques will appear and good employees will start to flee the organization.

There has been a huge amount of research done over the years that shows ongoing interpersonal and power conflicts between employees destroys relationships, communication, job satisfaction as well as the overall productivity that is so important for organizational success. Dialogue, conflict resolution strategies and ongoing communication are key to resolving conflicts. After all, people want to be heard, they want to be valued and they don’t want to be caught in the crossfire of conflicts based on a fight for positional power.

Jim Hummel illustration / San Jose Mercury News

On the other hand, words themselves have a lot of power for resolving conflicts because they can change behaviour and feelings. Negative words and behaviours such as criticism, sarcasm or inappropriate jokes, on the other hand, create defensiveness and only serve to create barriers to communication. While it is the responsibility of everyone to create positive interaction with colleagues in the workplace, positive communication can be more complex than meets the eye.

Many people believe that since they can talk, they are actually communicating, but this is not the case. Good communication requires deliberate strategies and the use of words that express appreciation, show encouragement, support and/or empathy and sympathy when appropriate. It requires thoughtful selection of words before they are spoken.

Words and communication are extremely important to building positive relationships in the workplace, so I see it as a perfect opportunity to engage employees in an internal coaching process to improve their communication strategies and become a more effective and supportive colleagues.

The coaching process as described by Dr. Michael Shoop, a specialist in leadership and change, posits that any deep, meaningful learning involves some type of discovery. Therefore, it is important that the coach meets the employee where they are in terms of the communication skill hierarchy. And since the coaching journey will involve a change and readjustment from one’s normal communication patterns, it is also important to ensure the employee feels psychologically safe within the coaching environment.

I guarantee that most employees want to develop positive relationships at work but their communication patterns sometimes do just the opposite. This is where the concept of discovery comes in. The coach invites the employee to engage in a variety of exercises which are then discussed. The individual is invited to reflect back on their own experience through which they will gain insight into the impact of their current communication style and behaviour. Once the individual gains a good sense of self-awareness and how their communication contributes to the conflict and understands where they can grow, they can begin learning and practising new skills.

Ann Mitchell, MA, a certified coach and professional municipal administrator, finds coaching to be an empowering process where individuals can learn to thrive. In her view, the most effective skill for a coach is listening with a specific focus on being in tune with the speaker. This is “deep” listening, tuning in to how the situation is perceived by the employee, listening for new facts, being empathetic and connecting with the employee and their core ideas.

In working with individual employees, Mitchell finds that coaching creates a better understanding between the leader and the direct report because it opens up conversation and helps to build trust. Finally, as both an internal and external coach, Mitchell suggested that one of the great benefits of coaching is that her coachees pick up coaching skills themselves and begin using this in their own manager/employee relationships.

Kim Loeb, the executive director of Professional, Applied and Continuing Education at the University of Winnipeg, is also a certified coach and specializes in working with middle managers who are trying to maximize performance and overall job satisfaction. This is a difficult task as the job of a middle manager is to communicate organizational goals and strategic changes to team members while at the same time being the target of any backlash or pushback from the employees. While they may be frustrated themselves, they need to keep a positive tone to all their communications. This is the reason Loeb feels strongly about the discovery approach, as it helps middle managers to see things in a different light and to learn new coping skills.

Let’s face it, building and maintaining positive workplace relationships is important but it is also an ongoing challenge. Tempers flair, conflict surfaces and drama spreads throughout the organization to the point of war between individuals and/or departments. Leaders don’t ever want to see these conflicts destroy their organization so this is where establishing an ongoing coaching process can help. Teaching leaders to coach middle managers and managers to coach their employees helps to build a strong and stable workforce that is productive and happy.

Leadership coaching is now also a growing profession with international credentials and personal growth learning opportunities. And as you have learned from the leaders whose stories I’ve shared, taking a coaching approach and developing a coaching culture within a workplace has significant value overall. Employees who engage in coaching gain much more self-awareness about their own contributions to any communication challenges and at the same time, learn to stretch their own skills and expertise in communicating upward to senior executives and down to frontline employees.

Yet these leaders point out good coaching is not easy and that managers should consider taking professional training. In their view, coaches must not only understand the different aspect of individual behaviour and interpersonal dynamics, they must also understand how organizational systems themselves impact an individual’s behaviour. Finally, a good manager coach must be able to help their coachees understand the various other influences impacting communication and learn to moderate their behaviour and responses.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, B.Ed., M.Ed., CCP is an author, radio personality, and executive coach. She can be reached at barb@bowesleadership.com

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