Now that everyone writes so much every day, we corporate writers often feel the urge to help people who don’t have our training, experience and DNA.
Our skin crawls when they write it’s instead of its, especially in 44-point font on a PowerPoint slide. Our stomachs churn when we try to make sense of a jargon-filled plan. Our brain synapses dim as we struggle through a long-winded email.
We are needed. We want to help.
But how? This subject comes up a lot at IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) gatherings, where my fellow professionals keep saying that we should coach more.
What is coaching?
However, I’m not always clear on what my colleagues mean by coaching. It’s not the same as sports coaches screaming at sweaty athletes. That would get us fired. And it’s not like those life coaches, with their perky aphorisms and acronyms.
So I asked a career coach, Lee Weisser, who has invested a lot of energy into training and coach certification. She also has a master’s degree in adult education. Better still, she has many years’ experience as a corporate writer. She gets us — and the people we want to help.
How performance management differs
The first thing to understand, Lee insisted, is the difference between coaching and performance management.
Coaching is about asking people questions until they come up with the answers themselves and reveal truths. That way, they’ll gain insight and take ownership, she pointed out.
Performance management is about setting objectives in collaboration with people who need to improve, then working with them to determine how to best to achieve those objectives.
Coaching strengthens the positives; performance management fixes the negatives.
My telling tale
The trouble is that coaching doesn’t always work, I replied, citing the example of the coach-style psychiatrist I visited back when I was a stressed member of the corporate world. I would rant about all the obstacles and injustices in my life, while he would nod.
While the outbursts had a temporary calming effect, nothing much changed. Until he gave me some performance management-style advice.
One day when I was going on about how frustrated I would get when the subway was late, the shrink finally spoke up and said: “Leave 10 minutes earlier.”
My life changed. I became more punctual and less stressed.
A pure coaching approach is even less likely to work with many of the people you want to help because they think their writing is just fine. They will point to the many splendid diplomas on their walls as proof.
Focus on results
To coach people like that, Lee advised, you need to go beyond writing and ask them about the results they want to achieve.
For example, with a professional who is frustrated by his difficulties in becoming a well-recognized expert, you might ask about the people he wants to impress. Then you could ask him about the writing style that would appeal to them.
After that, you could tilt to the performance management side, giving him tips on what to do and what to avoid. You could offer to go over his next attempts until he gets the hang of it.
I start out as a coach, asking workshop participants what makes them really connect with people in conversation. Here, I’m uncovering a positive truth, the talent for communicating most people honed as a kid. Then I ask them how they might apply that to their work writing.
Because many can’t fully answer the second question, I have a list of tips, which means I’ve tilted the scale from coaching to telling them what to do, performance management.
Then the balance shifts back to coaching, as I ask the participants about the person they most want to connect with. I feed them two questions to focus on: What gets her up in the morning? What keeps him up at night?
For corporate objectives
Performance management would carry more weight than coaching if you are training about a corporate objective the individuals don’t necessarily own. For example, likely your organization knows that people are squandering too much time reading and writing long emails.
By pointing out the personal benefits of improved productivity, understanding and retention, you can try to persuade employees to own the objective of writing concisely, which would move the conversation back to coaching.
You could also ask them to come up with their own strategies for accomplishing this. But soon you’d return to the performance management style of advising them how to do it.
Strength to build on
The weight you place on performance management is also determined by how much strength they have to build on.
For example, it’s unproductive and probably futile, for me to figure out on my own how to assemble my new shed. No matter how deeply I long for protection for our bicycles and garden tools, I suck at mechanical tasks. I don’t have enough positives to build on. I need performance management, not coaching. Or probably outsourcing.
Unfortunately, your co-workers probably can’t outsource all their work writing, not only because of the potential cost, but also because of all the expertise, thinking and personality that must be pulled out of their brains.
Although coaching is trendier, Lee concluded, it needs to be balanced with performance management. The big challenge is to keep fine tuning the balance for the individual you want to help.