To Coach Junior Employees, Start with 4 Conversations

Career coaching is crucial for recent college graduates and young people entering the workforce. Though many have scant experience, they’re making choices that will affect their lives long into the future. Research has shown that first jobs are an optimal time for workers to gain transferable skills that follow them through their careers. The first three years in the workforce, in particular, have a significant impact on employees’ growth and confidence. Managers who coach their team members can help them think strategically, chart their courses, and navigate the ups and downs along the way.

When I founded Coach in a Box, a global organization later acquired by the consulting firm BTS, my goal was to bring this knowledge and skill to everyone. Over the course of our work, my colleagues and I gathered records of more than 100,000 coaching conversations to uncover the kind of guidance young employees need most. We studied conversations focused on the issues that employees struggle with most, and discovered four knowledge gaps that arise time and again:

  • How to build resilience: the ability to bounce back from setbacks, such as an early project gone wrong or a bombed presentation
  • How to influence others: the ability to win others’ trust and respect in order to more effectively execute a role
  • How to job craft: the ability to determine what constitutes a meaningful job and engineer a career for greater fulfillment
  • How to break out of a mental rut: the ability to challenge personal patterns of thinking in order to identify and solve problems through a different lens

Though all of these skills are vital, each requires a slightly different conversation. When fully and distinctly addressed, the skills can produce outcomes that refine short-term success, as well as long-term career satisfaction. The worker-manager relationship accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. This means that managers who invest time in addressing these issues not only increase employee retention but also build connections that keep their teams inspired, innovative, and doing their best work.

Conversation #1: How to build resilience

When young employees have a negative experience, they tend to beat themselves up. Their self-criticism is often loud, tanking their confidence and maybe their job performance too. This conversation, then, is about allowing employees to voice this negative self-talk — but not dwell on it. It’s about helping them figure out how to balance their thinking, drop their judgments, and focus on the one or two positive choices they can make to learn and move on.

In this conversation, ask questions that will help you figure out what your employee is experiencing:

  • How did you feel when your colleague said that?
  • What were you telling yourself in that moment?
  • What do you think this means about you?

Listen and repeat back what you hear. Once you gain an understanding of where your employee is coming from, follow up with questions that will help them get out of their head and reflect on what really happened. If an employee feels that they cannot make mistakes without losing credibility, for example, you might invite them to reconnect with a moment when they felt good, and ask questions like, “Is it true that a single mistake will cause people to write you off?” Stating aloud the employee’s internal story often will help them see that it is, most likely, fiction.

The last step is to help your employee figure out what choices they can make to navigate future situations differently. Be sure your tone is considerate but free of both emotion (positive or negative) and judgment throughout. Your job isn’t to solve their problem or sympathize, nor to build them up with encouraging feedback. Rather, your goal is to ask questions that will help them learn and become more resilient.

Conversation #2: How to influence others

When an employee struggles with a relationship, a great career coach helps them see the situation from the other person’s perspective and find new ways to engage or build the relationship. An analysis of our data with Singapore Management University uncovered that 39% of coaching conversations with junior employees focused on helping them influence people, build networks, and create desired impacts.

One recent graduate we coached, for example, was dealing with a director he found distant and indifferent. During their coaching conversation, his manager pushed him to put himself in the director’s shoes. When the employee considered the scope of the director’s responsibilities, he realized that what he saw as indifference could be preoccupation. He also became more aware of how his own role contributed to the company’s success. As a result, his initial defensiveness was replaced with curiosity, empathy, and confidence. By changing his approach, he was able to forge a completely different relationship with the director, who ultimately became a career-long mentor to him.

In this conversation, ask your employee to think from the other person’s perspective: What would it take to ensure the other person feels heard before you speak? Ask the employee how, with this new insight, they can communicate better in order to build trust. Try to avoid sympathizing (“Oh yes, that director is always like that”) or offering your own solutions. The key is to help the employee discover how to relate differently to this individual on their own.


Conversation #3: How to job craft

The point of this conversation is to help your employee reflect on what’s most important to them, so that they can shape a compelling vision for their future. Doing meaningful work matters to most people. Those who do not feel a sense of purpose tend to burn out more easily.

Consider the case of one high-flying employee we examined. She worked long hours on a project for her team. Though it was ultimately successful, she was so exhausted by the end that she told her manager she might not be able to commit to her role over the long term. The manager took this opportunity to help her remember why she originally joined his team. He asked her questions to help her regain clarity on what she wanted and what she would need to change to achieve it. She left feeling inspired and excited to forge on.

To inspire your team members in the same way, ask what’s important to them and hone in on what they want:

  • What is going on right now?
  • How would you like it to be different?
  • What is one thing you could do to move toward this vision?

Avoid questions about what others think or expect, and try not to share your personal experiences. Instead, focus on helping your employee identify the situation they are currently in, the situation they want to be in, and what steps they need to take to get there. If they don’t know what they want yet, try to help them find ways to explore avenues they are curious about.

Conversation #4: How to break out of a mental rut

Sometimes an employee just gets stuck when trying to solve a problem. They try once and, when it doesn’t work, they either give up or try again using the same method. Managers can help their team members spot these “rivers of thinking” and paddle their way out.

One recent graduate we coached was struggling to understand why the training events she organized were poorly attended. She kept trying new, creative methods to motivate attendance, and kept failing. Her manager helped her think about it in a different way. He pushed her to get curious about what kind of events people would attend, as opposed to mulling over strategies on how to get people to attend her current trainings.

This new thought process led her to realize that her events were superfluous — all of the information she offered could be found online. What her colleagues wanted was the chance to get advice and support from peers. With that in mind, she launched a highly successful lunchtime networking club.

Use this conversation to help your employee identify their stuck thinking and seek out new avenues of inquiry. Start by asking:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What feelings do you notice about it?
  • What are you most concerned about?
  • What do you observe other people feeling frustrated about?

Your goal is to get them to identify what problem they are actually trying to solve and why their efforts may not be working. Repeat their answers back to them. Once they seem to understand that their current plan of action is flawed, encourage them to think about alternative solutions by considering all of the information they have gathered.

Remember, your role is not to provide solutions. It is to help employees clarify the questions they’re trying to answer, push them to gather perspectives from diverse sources, and reflect on what they’ve learned in order to come up with a new and better strategy.

Building up employees into future leaders requires you to help them adopt mindsets that will shift their attitudes. If they can master those mindsets, they can find satisfaction, stay engaged, and fulfill their long-term potential. The first step is figuring out what your employees need from you so that you can have the right conversations.

Jerry Connor is head of the coaching practice at BTS, an organization that works with leaders at all levels to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions, and deliver results. With more than 26 years of experience in change management and leadership development, Jerry has extensive experience working with a variety of top global organizations as well as in the public sector.  


How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism

Most of us have been “feedsmacked” at some point in our life. In the midst of a meeting, an innocent walk down the hallway, or a performance review, someone delivers a verbal wallop that rocks our psychological footing. We looked at 445 such incidents when we conducted an online survey asking people about the hardest feedback they ever received.

Some of the comments were downright harsh (“Think about leaving — I need warriors not wimps” and “You only want to be right. You are manipulative. You don’t care about others”) and others were less intense while still direct (“When you lose your temper, it can make others feel less respected” and “You need to improve your emails by only stating facts and not making them so flowery or soft”).

Many respondents to our study were still haunted by a harsh comment they received decades ago. I know this feeling from personal experience. I still feel a tightness in my chest and a sense of profound dread when I recall an episode where a colleague who didn’t like the way I handled an email called me a “f—ing idiot” and threatened to destroy me.

My hunch was that those who received such high-octane criticisms were likely to feel worse than those who received gentler comments. But, surprisingly, people who received less severe comments reported being just as overwhelmed and upset.

I was also surprised that few in our study became combative in the face of criticism, regardless of its severity. In fact, close to 90% described their immediate emotional response with words like dumbfounded, flabbergasted, shocked, stunned, or numb and 40% described a “shame”-related emotion like: embarrassment, worthlessness, hurt, sadness, and self-doubt. A scant 15% reacted with feelings that focused on the other person: anger, betrayal, or violence.

Why would anodyne observations create just as much agony as scathing assaults? The answer is this: we all crave approval and fear truth. And critical feedback feels traumatic because it threatens two of our most fundamental psychological needs: safety (perceived physical, social, or material security) and worth (a sense of self-respect, self-regard, or self-confidence).

Let’s address safety first. There are times when feedback does include financial threats (“I’m going to fire you”), relational threats (“I’m going to leave you”), or even physical threats (“I’m going to hit you”). In these instances, fear is the right response. But our analysis of the 445 episodes people reported in our study showed that immediate threats are a rare exception. In most cases, it is our defensive, combative, or resentful response to feedback that puts us at risk more than the feedback itself.

Now let’s talk about worth. If learning truth is beneficial, why would its reception provoke shame, fear, and anger? Because we live with an undercurrent of terror that we aren’t worthy and feedback risks pointing this out.

Many in our study argued that feedback hurts worse when the messenger has malicious motives. In truth, motive is irrelevant. The reality is that most of us crave the approval of powerful people. Our secret hope is that their positive endorsement might finally quiet feelings of nagging inadequacy. But it doesn’t.

I’ve spent much of my life believing that the best way to help people receive and act on negative feedback is to help those who are delivering it to improve their message. But I’m now convinced I was wrong. Rather than focusing on saying things the “right” way, we need to all get better a finding truth in negative feedback, no matter how it’s delivered.

I’ve witnessed first-hand how people can do this by taking responsibility for their own safety and worth. For the past three years, I have studied and worked with a nonprofit called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Approximately one hundred adult men and women with long histories of crime, addiction, and homelessness live at TOSA in a self-reliant community that thrives on feedback. Their fundamental belief is that relentless exposure to truth is the best path to growth and happiness.


Twice a week, students engage in a process called “Games,” which is two hours of nonstop feedback. It can be loud. Vocabulary is sometimes raw and colorful. And a single student can be the focus of relentless attention for 20-25 minutes from as many as two dozen colleagues. Peers present you with evidence that you are dishonest, manipulative, lazy, selfish, or mean. There is little emphasis placed on diplomatic delivery of the message. Instead, they focus on helping the individual learn to “take their game.”

A few students react to their game defensively. They’ll withdraw, deny, or lash-out against those who are telling them things they don’t want to hear. But most don’t. They quickly learn that they are the primary source of their own safety. Reassuring themselves of their own efficacy is the fastest path to peace, and the best way to increase their self-efficacy is to scour the feedback for truth. The feedback is either true, false, or more often, a mix of the two. And if the truth is going to hurt you, it is more likely to do greater damage when you don’t know it than when you do. So, learning it is always beneficial.

What I’ve learned from the TOSA students is that we need to build our resilience in the face of criticism. Here are four steps you can try the next time harsh feedback catches you off-guard. I’ve organized them into an easy-to-remember acronym — CURE — to help you put these lessons in practice even when you’re under stress.

  1. Collect yourself. Breathing deeply and slowly reminds you that you are safe. It signals that you don’t need to be aroused for physical defense. Noticing your feelings helps, too. Are you hurt, scared, embarrassed, ashamed? The more connected you are to these primary feelings the less you become consumed with secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or exaggerated fear. Some students collect themselves by consciously connecting with soothing truths, for example by repeating a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe.” or “If I made a mistake, it doesn’t mean I am a mistake.”
  2. Understand. Be curious. Ask questions and ask for examples. And then just listen. Detach yourself from what is being said as though it is being said about a third person. That will help you bypass the need to evaluate what you’re hearing. Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story.
  3. Recover. It’s often best at this point to simply exit the conversation. Explain that you want some time to reflect and you’ll respond when you have a chance to do so. Give yourself permission to feel and recover from the experience before doing any evaluation of what you heard. At TOSA, students sometimes simply say, “I will take a look at that.” They don’t agree. They don’t disagree. They simply promise to look sincerely at what they were told on their own timeline. You can end a challenging episode by simply saying, “It’s important to me that I get this right. I need some time. And I’ll get back to you to let you know where I come out.”
  4. Engage. Examine what you were told. If you’ve done a good job reassuring yourself of your safety and worth, rather than poking holes in the feedback, you’ll look for truth. If it’s 90% fluff and 10% substance, look for the substance. There is almost always at least a kernel of truth in what people are telling you. Scour the message until you find it. Then, if appropriate, re-engage with the person who shared the feedback and acknowledge what you heard, what you accept, and what you commit to do. At times, this may mean sharing your view of things. If you’re doing so with no covert need for their approval, you won’t need to be defensive.

It turns out that the misery we feel when “feedsmacked” is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Those who acknowledge and address this deeper issue don’t just get better at these rare startling moments of emotional trauma, they are better equipped for all of life’s vicissitudes.

Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.


Are You Outsourcing Your Stress Management?

Are you stressed?

Given that the World Health Organisation has called stress “the health epidemic of the 21st Century” your answer could well be in the affirmative.

What do you do to manage down your stress? Asking clients yields: I go for a long weekend away to get my head straight; I numb out on Netflix; I go to gym and pound the treadmill; I go for a sail to take my mind off work; I drink red wine; I go for a massage; I go for a run / bike ride; I head for the spa; etc. And there are plenty of other new options coming up, for example: oxygen therapy / bars that provide relief from stress.

What’s common in the list above? They are all options that outsource your stress management.

There is a good chance you’ve never thought of it like this … but I urge you to do so. Why?

Because I think these activities are palliative.  Sure, you are less stressed once you’ve done any of them but – and this is my point – the same you then returns to the same environment which caused your stress in the first place. Are you going to get stressed again? You betcha.

(Just to clear something up before I continue. I’m not saying don’t do any of the above activities; just do them for the pure enjoyment of them. If you love sailing then go sailing and enjoy yourself fully rather than using some of the time to destress.)

True stress management is an inside job (insourcing) and this, I believe, is accomplished by adopting the latest neuroscience practices. I’ve done this myself and can attest to the quite dramatic change that has occurred in me. Neuroscience practices literally alter the brain for a better outcome.

For any new practice to be effective they have to become habits but once they do you can “armour up” your stress defences 24/7. In my research, and personal experience, you will: have greater confidence; become more influential; be more productive; have better relationships; obtain greater resilience; and become more self-aware. I have!

I’ve identified 24 practices to bring about the above. You don’t have to embrace all of them from the get-go and neither do you have to practice everything within them. Life is a marathon. The practices I’ve identified are:

If you would like to know more about why you should be insourcing your stress management, please contact me:

021-674-3820  |  083-414-5756  

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Peter Moss holds a Diploma in Practitioner Coaching. He is further qualified in The Hay Group’s Emotional & Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) and Gary Norton & Associates’ Emotional Maturity Inventory, both EQ/EI Assessment models and is a Certified Level 1 Qualified Strengths Deployment Inventory Facilitator from Personal Strengths South Africa (SDI is the cornerstone tool of Relationship Awareness Theory). Peter has extensive experience in executive and business coaching, across a variety of companies and industries.


Cultivating resilience in a company is a good return on investment

Stress and burnout related to the increasing pace and intensity of work are on the rise globally.
A survey of over 100 000 employees across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America found that stress, anxiety and depression in employees accounted for 82.6% of all emotional health cases in Employee Assistance Programmes in 2014, up from 55.2% in 2012. This is a hefty increase and indicative of our current constantly connected, “always- on”, highly demanding work cultures where stress and the risk of burnout are widespread. It is also a major cause for concern as stress directly affects work performance.

Employee stress, burnout on the rise internationally

Stress and burnout related to the increasing pace and intensity of work are on the rise globally.  A survey of over 100 000 employees across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America found that stress, anxiety and depression in employees accounted for 82.6% of all emotional health cases in Employee Assistance Programmes in 2014—up from 55.2% in 2012.  This is a hefty increase and indicative of our current constantly connected, “always- on”, highly demanding work cultures where stress and the risk of burnout are widespread.  It is also a major cause for concern as stress directly affects work performance.