Everyone complains now and then but continuous complaining from employees is a sign of dis-empowerment.  Other than habit, people complain for two reasons: either they don’t know what they want, or they want something they think they can’t have. As a leader, it’s easy to get into distracted, non-focused conversations when you don’t know what to say, or when you are in the habit of immediately relieving emotional pain so you can get back to work. Constant disruption turns your open-door into a revolving door, compromises your focus and reduces your leadership effectiveness. Leading others is easy if you know how to coach  to empowerment.

First let’s look at what not to do, then let’s look at the coaching technique you can use to turn complainers into empowered responsible employees.

What Not To Do
When an employee comes to you complaining reject the tendency to fix their problem immediately. This creates dependency on you instead of initiative from the employee. Do not take on their issue and put your focus on something they can solve. Do not get distracted into games of Ping Pong, where you get entwined into a circular conversation about who is to blame, what happened last year, or why life isn’t fair. Keep your focus on helping your employee figure out what they want, what their choices are and what they need to be willing to do.

Coach to Empowerment Using Three Questions

  1. What do you want?
  2. What are your choices?
  3. Are you willing…?

When someone complains the first thing you must do is listen and acknowledge their reality. By reality I mean their emotional reality. Example: “Stephanie, I hear you. It sounds like you are frustrated by the new system.”  When people feel heard they usually are open to being coached. If you miss this important foundation (listening and acknowledging) you will get caught in a non-productive conversation, which only means that Stephanie is trying to make sure you “get it.” Once Stephanie knows you understand, then you can ask the most important question: What do you want?

What Do You Want?

“So Stephanie. I know you are frustrated. In your perfect world, what do you want?”  Wait for it…wait for it. Chances are, you will get a distraction or a barrier. Stephanie will talk about why it’s not fair, why what she wants is impossible, and how she is not going to put up with it, and so on. You have to maintain your presence and go back to the original question in order to coach to empowerment. It sounds something like this. “Yes, Stephanie, I know how you feel. The question is, what do you want?”  Get comfortable with the pregnant pause. Real leadership is about focused energy.
Keep your focus and listen.

Beware of Distractions
Quick answers are usually distractions and not the core issue.  Your employee may say, “I just want Michael to be fired.” Or, she may say, “I don’t know what I want.” Or she may say, “I just wanted to vent.” If your employee says, “I just wanted to vent,” you simply respond with “OK.” This is proof that you listened and he or she felt heard. Here is where you go with the other two statements.
“I just want Michael to be fired.”
This is a distraction to blame someone else. Your employee probably wants something else and thinks that Michael being fired is the “How” to get to the end result. Don’t get triggered to talk about Michael. Dig a bit deeper and use coach to empowerment techniques to uncover the real issue.

Leader: What would that give you that you don’t have right now?
Employee: I would feel that I have more support from a different team member.
Leader: So, you want better teamwork is what I’m hearing.

Usually if you get to the core issue you can take the conversation forward. You can help Stephanie work together with Michael, or you can initiate a team conversation. The point here is that if what the employee wants is unrealistic, don’t resist, but do keep digging.

“I don’t know what I want.”
This statement may be factual.  One of the reasons employees complain is because they don’t know what they want. However, until they describe or declare what they want, you can’t really help them.  Use patience to make them responsible for their own desires.

Leader: If you did know what you want what would it be?
Employee: I still don’t know.
Leader: Then come back tomorrow at two and give me some direction. I can’t help you until you are able to name what you want.

Once the employee has articulated what he or she wants, the next question is what are your choices?

What Are Your Choices?

The first part of responsibility is the recognition of choice. When you help your employee recognize choices, they are back in power to make an informed decision. Suppose your employee says, “I want to become a director.”  Your next question is “What choices do you see to help you get there?” Avoid the tendency to give away all the answers even if you know what it would take. Your job is to see if the employee can take ownership of the choices available.

If your employee says, “I have no choices,” then you know he is not taking responsibility. Most of the time, an employee will start to explore choices. The choice may be to get another certification, work a different shift, take a mentoring opportunity or even a pay cut while learning new skills. The bottom line here is that when you help the employee look at all the choices, the only thing left to do is to determine his or her level of willingness to do what is required.

Are You Willing?

In both Stop Workplace Drama, and No-Drama Leadership I introduced a concept called The Fulcrum Point of Change. The idea is that there is a mindset or an energetic pattern that emerges right before personal change or transformation takes place. That mindset is willingness. Nothing happens until someone is willing. When your employee sees the choices available your coaching is geared toward his or her level of willingness. This is the area where you find resistance and barriers, usually starting with the word, “but.”

  • But it might be difficult.
  • But I might be embarrassed if I don’t get the job.
  • But it might be expensive.

This is where many otherwise good leaders get impatient and give up. Yet you are right at the fulcrum point and this is where coaching masters gain traction. There are two coach to empowerment skills. The first skill is to ask the employee to face and overcome the barrier. The second skill is to help the employee minimize the barrier.

Coach to Empowerment for Releasing Resistance

Resistance Face the Barrier Minimize the Barrier
I don’t know. It  might be difficult. Yes, it will be difficult. Are you willing to do it anyway? If I could help you make it less difficult would you be willing?
Yes, however I might be embarrassed if I don’t get the job. Yes, you might be. Are you willing to risk embarrassment to go for it? If I could reduce the risk of embarrassment, would you be willing to go for it?
But it might be expensive. Yes it is. Are you willing to invest in yourself? If we can make it easier to afford would you be willing to invest in yourself?

Conclusion
Coaching techniques always look easy on paper, and in workshops everyone knows the correct answer. However if you want to create a culture of empowered responsible employees, the ability to coach to empowerment is worth the learning investment. It just depends upon what you want, what choices you have to practice and whether or not you are willing to do what is required to master the techniques.