12 Tips for Effectively Counseling Your Subordinates

Counseling your team is a lot like creating a leader development program…if you overthink it, it’ll never get done. Plenty of leaders groan when we talk about counseling and typically cite any of the following reasons for not getting it done:

  • “It takes so much time to counsel everyone each month.”
  • “I give plenty of feedback in meetings and other times.”
  • “My people already know where they stand.”
  • “We have more pressing priorities than counseling. You know we’re deploying, right?”

But most often, leaders don’t counsel because they’re uncomfortable with giving direct feedback. They also have difficulty telling subordinates that they’re doing an average job (it’s the best and the worst performers that are the easiest to give feedback to).

Leaders have to overcome these objections. Not only is formal feedback required in almost every organization, but the process brings incredible value to your team. Your subordinates want to hear how they are doing. They want to get better. They want to learn from you. The key to successful counseling is to make the sessions interesting and worth their (and your) time.

Here are several tips that leaders can use to make counseling more effective and more likely to happen:

  • Just do it! As with most tasks that we’re uncomfortable with or have little experience doing, just getting a few reps in will break down apprehension and inject confidence about the process.
  • Simplify the method. There’s no need to fill out an elaborate feedback form prior to every counseling. I had a commander who used a simple format on a  single-page Word document with the headings:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Way-Ahead. It was easy and effective.
  • Record feedback notes as they occur. Don’t wait until the morning of the counseling to write your assessment of the subordinate. Doing so is unfair because you’ll undoubtedly forget a lot of the good and the bad. Keep an easily-accessible digital document or a notepad handy to record feedback points for later.
  • Get out of the office and find an alternate venue. No one likes the awkward, one-on-one scenario that feels scripted and formal. Do your counseling during a workout or over breakfast, where you have an activity to break up the conversation and facilitate engagement.
  • Block off time for counseling. If counseling is important, schedule it on the unit calendar so that your subordinate leaders actually have the time to do it.
  • Tailor your sessions. Ask what type of counseling is most effective for each subordinate and accommodate within reason.
  • Open the counseling by having your subordinate review what he’s been working on and assess his own performance. This allows him to bring up anything you might not have observed and gives you a perspective of his challenges and priorities.
  • “Don’t step around the unsaid.” Few worthwhile lessons ever come from comfortable conversations. Get uncomfortable about why the subordinate made certain decisions. If there was failure, unpack the scenario to draw out the best lessons. If he/she is struggling with an issue (professional or personal), redirect the conversation to uncover the root cause and help them solve it.
  • Involve them in the process. Make your team feel comfortable about telling you their successes/failures. There are lots of commendable actions that go on beneath your radar. Encourage them to send you a quick note when something goes well and to include you in challenges they’re facing.
  • Set performance standards and over-communicate them. There’s nothing worse than going into a feedback session thinking you’re doing well, only to find out that you’ve been missing the mark for some time. This scenario is incredibly unfair and corrosive. Especially in an era of a downsizing military, publish your standards of performance and emphasize them at every opportunity. (Hint:  your approach should include something that sounds like, “Not all of you will be rated in the top tier, but if you want to perform your way into the top tier, you need to…”)
  • Bookend with positives. Unless you’re giving feedback to the bottom 10%, everyone on your team wants to do the right thing and perform well. Acknowledge that fact and accentuate the positive. You want your subordinates to leave the meeting with the motivation to work on the improvement areas, not feel dejected and hopeless about them.
  • Find teachable moments. Don’t wait for a scheduled counseling session if there is a clear opportunity to give good feedback and teach a lesson. Your team will appreciate this and your feedback is more likely to stick because it’s being received in the emotional and situational context of the event.

For a comprehensive resource to improve counseling, engage subordinates, and reducing risk in your formation, check out “The Mounted Rifleman Counseling Guide”.

Questions for Leaders

  • What kind of feedback do you appreciate? Are you giving that to your team?
  • How often are your subordinate leaders counseling their team?
  • How can you better engage your subordinates to inform them of where they stand in the organization and how they can improve?

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