Does Your Workplace Culture Support Quality Conversations?

By Chris Ihrig

Coaching has come a long way since its performance management origins. The second generation of employment coaching bowed to the movement away from the 20th Century workplace where employees were kept in rigid hierarchies toward one that recognized that an employee’s contributions can be increased by creating an environment that facilitates growth.

Today, I want to share some research on the third wave of coaching that I think you’ll find as interesting as I do. The article was published in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice. The research was done by Anthony M. Grant at the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney. If you’re like me, you’ll feel an affinity with the broader view of an employee as a whole person that is encompassed in the philosophy incorporated in the third wave of workplace coaching.

Coaching, as we near the roaring twenties of the 21st Century, relies on evidence-based research. The University of Sydney is not the only university with a “Coaching Psychology Unit” in its psychology department. Oxford Brookes University and the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School are just two of many others that came to life as the demand for better methods of enhancing performance expanded.

The third wave “explicitly focuses on enhancing both the performance and the well-being of individuals and organizations in ways that are sustainable and personally meaningful.” In 2012, an HBR article, The Management Century, noted that there has been a 30-year tension between “the numbers-driven push for greater profitability, and the cry for more respect for the “’humanity of production.’” Thanks, in large part, to the positive psychology movement, we now know that when employees are given strategies that help them manage stress and increase success, the employees experience more positive emotions and the numbers improve automatically.

Happy, engaged employees are more productive, innovative, and successful. When quality conversations become the cultural norm in the workplace, more managers and employees naturally experience greater well-being and, as a result, their productivity improves. During the second wave of coaching, the training called for prescriptive coaching sessions that felt stiff and uncomfortable to both employees and managers.

The third wave is more about the attitude than the jargon or the words used during the sessions. When the manager recognizes that a coaching moment is present, they ask questions with an attitude that views the employee as capable and autonomous. These sessions can occur quickly and should be frequent. They can be done on the fly. Waiting in line at Starbuck’s could provide an opportunity for a mini-coaching session if the topic isn’t confidential.

The skills required feel more natural and conversational, such as wrapping up the conversation with an agreement about the next steps or mentioning that you have another commitment and only have a few minutes left so that the conversation can move to immediate needs before it ends. An observer of a good third wave conversation might describe it as collaborative, but it is more than that. There is mutual recognition of one another’s value despite differences in their roles, salary, or title. In the best conversations, there is an underlying sense, even if it is never spoken aloud, of giving one another the benefit of the doubt where each party assumes the other has good intentions.

The employee assumes the manager wants the employee to be successful, not just to meet the organization’s goals, but also because the employee has goals of their own. The manager assumes the employee wants the manager and the company to be successful in meeting their goals. The work is seen as mutually beneficial.

Given this framework, it becomes apparent why companies that have a relatable mission or support social causes are able to increase employee engagement. Although everyone needs money and most people want it, research has shown that money is not a great motivator once the employee’s financial expectations are met. To increase loyalty and engagement, the employee must connect emotionally with the mission.

Employees who regularly experience quality conversations with their boss will be more agile when fast-paced changes occur because they will feel more comfortable bringing their concerns into the light of day. They will, and this may be more important, trust their manager more than someone whose coaching sessions are stilted and formal, even if they occur more frequently than once a year.

We know from the research that coaching creates a ripple effect that spreads throughout the organization that can create greater stability during times of change, much like the ballast in the hull of a boat.  

Personal values, of both the employee and the manager, are critical when developing a culture of quality conversations. A manager whose personal values are at odds with the program won’t engage. If the manager doesn’t engage, the employee will sense their lack of authenticity. It is much easier to gain buy-in to a concept than a prescriptive formula for conversations. If the manager isn’t engaged, it makes gaining the employee’s engagement almost impossible.

Three hallmarks of third-wave coaching are “authenticity, realism, and self-congruency.” One aspect of authenticity is permission to speak candidly without adverse repercussions. If an employee doesn’t feel able to express dissatisfaction, the employee can’t be authentic. One way to approach this is by asking employees to bring ideas for solutions when they are unhappy with the status quo. When their ideas are treated with respect, as either learning or collaboration opportunities, complaints can be transformed into quality conversations.  

Looking back at where we began and comparing the beginning to where we are today helps me see the progress we’ve made toward creating truly collaborative workplaces that encourage continuous growth and tap the potential of every employee to become their best self. It makes me wonder, where will we go tomorrow?