employees stacking their hands in a circle
When coaching for compliance, you're trying to convince your employees to act in a certain way, but coaching with compassion fosters connection and positive emotion. — Getty Images/scyther5

This article was contributed to CO— by the authors of the book, "Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth" published by Harvard Business Review Press (2019).

Building a small business is all about change. As a business owner, you need to focus not only on your customers and technology, but also your staff — the ones who are responding to customers, creating, making and delivering your goods or services.

Staff members are instrumental to accomplishing tasks and reaching goals. As your business grows, your staff needs to be open to new ideas, change perspectives, be alert for shifts in your market and stay attuned to what your competitors are doing.

However, for many business owners, when a staff member has an issue, the focus ends up being on the problem and not the person — making what could be an opportunity to develop the person simply a task to be fixed.

When considering your management style, you first have to decide whether you want to focus on your business’s short-term results or long-term results and adaptability. The former will seduce you into using a more task-driven method — running you the risk of turning people off and reducing engagement.

But if you decide to focus on the long your long-term health and adaptability of your business, and on the desire for your employees to feel excited, engaged and motivated to learn and change, then you shift your primary focus to their development.

These two methods are what we call “coaching for compliance” and “coaching with compassion.”

Why employee compliance alone is not sustainable

When you are in task mode, you do not see the other people around you, let alone their new ideas or desire to grow and develop. When you offer help, it can slip into the form of directive advice, corrective actions, or “constructive criticism.” This is coaching for compliance.

When coaching for compliance, you try to convince others to act in a certain way. Those on the receiving end of such directions often respond from a place of obligation. This is very different than inspiring others to choose their own course of behavior or lighting a flame within them.

In our new book, “Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth,” we tell stories of managers, executives, physicians, teachers and parents trying to help motivate others to learn and change. What they often notice is that any effort at getting people (in this case, employees) to comply with their wishes is short-lived. The change or learning is not sustainable. People’s motivation and sense of engagement drops over time. They lose hope and stop short of applying their brilliance and talent at work every day.

Fortunately, we have discovered a better way to motivate and even inspire others to learn and change.

It sounds counterintuitive, but to motivate learning and change, you don’t address the specific problem directly.

Compassion in the workplace breeds results and engagement

Based on 30 years of longitudinal studies of adults changing their behavior, neuro-imagining and hormonal studies, our coaching with compassion approach is a method of connecting with others in a way that fosters more positive emotion, helps the other person discover their values, purpose and move closer to their dreams.

It sounds counterintuitive, but to motivate learning and change, you don’t address the specific problem directly. If you were to do that, the other person would likely react with defensiveness and close down — imposing your solution.

Coaching with compassion helps the other person feel excited. They become positively infectious and others start to catch the enthusiasm. In these moments of connection and inspiration, they become grounded in who they are authentically and are encouraged to bring their A-game to work!

Tips for coaching with compassion

So how does coaching with compassion work? Simply, you pay attention to your employees’ dreams, values and sense of purpose.

  • Ask them why they want to work. If their answer is to make money, point out there are a lot of ways to do that, and then ask them why they’ve chosen this job.
  • Ask them what kind of person they wish to be. What kind of life they want to live?
  • Ask them what would happen if they won $50 million in a lottery. How would that affect their work or life? Listen carefully to the answers.
  • Help them see the larger picture. Explain how the tasks they are doing fit into the overall purpose of serving your customers or providing your service. Talk about how customers feel when receiving the goods or services.

Coaching with compassion does not mean you become a social worker or therapist. It simply means you focus on the person, versus the problem to be solved. As a small business owner, you do not have the bandwidth to lose focus. Coaching with compassion serves to increase bandwidth and build the engagement of your team.

Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten are Professors in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Richard is the H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business, Melvin is Faculty Director Executive Education, and Ellen is Director of the Coaching Research Lab.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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