Coaching Up

I learned the term ‘coaching up’ only a couple years ago and just like when you buy a new car, I have since heard it everywhere. If you are like I was not too long ago and thinking, that’s an actual term? I’ll explain. Coaching up is when you offer feedback and development potential to someone who is above you in the chain. So you suggest to your boss a better way to handle a certain situation or you give feedback to a senior in the organization on a way to improve their delivery of information. Some of you are thinking, oh ok that makes sense, and others (eyes wide) are thinking, you can do that?! You can and it is greatly needed sometimes. Dare I say it is even our responsibility to coach up as our leaders can’t possibly see, know, and understand everything. They have blind spots and someone who cares about the success of the team as a whole and the individual would help them to see those areas clearly.

So sweet, let’s recap, coaching up is developing your manager and above, it’s important to success, it’s also, as you can imagine, difficult to do. I mean, can you imaging coming to your leaders to tell them that they made a mistake, could improve x y or z, or are repeatedly doing something wrong? That is heavy. How will they react? Will they project it all back on you? Will they retaliate in some way? What if you’re wrong and that really is the right way to handle something and you’re putting yourself in this situation for nothing?

Photo by Ann H on

Pretty easy to see why people avoid it but I can tell you from being on both sides of it, it is so important you just need to learn how. First of all, just like you, your boss doesn’t want to hear every single misstep they make. It is counter productive to share all of the millions of things they could do differently to suit your preferences (think of that as micromanaging up). Balance that with, it is important to not let things fester and compound while you decide if you should discuss. My suggestion, if something they have done really causes friction for you think back and determine if this is already a trend or a one time problem. If a trend, and it is causing pain for you and the team, share it. If not a trend make sure it’s egregious enough of a problem to discuss as it may just be a complete one off. Next consider your delivery. Is this something that all work needs to stop this instant and correct or can it be saved for a thoughtful private conversation. I’ve seen both needs so they do happen but the latter is much preferred for obvious reasons. Finally your words, choose them respectfully and strategically. Most leaders are forward thinking so I suggest using that to your advantage. When it has worked best for me is when I introduce that I’m giving feedback, discuss the positive intent or strategy I believe them to have, and lay to the situation or trend that I’m seeing, and relate it back to how it might inhibit their strategy. OK let’s use an example;

I’ve noticed something lately that I’d like to discuss. I understand that you’re wanting to be available for the team at any time that they may need you. You also have a lot of work to do yourself so I understand the need to work more hours. When we get emails from you late at night or on the weekends it feels as though you’re expecting us to be working then as well. You, and all of us, take pride in our culture here and this feeling like we’re expected to be on at all times is hurting it.

That seems simple enough right? Give the feedback to develop the person in turn positively impacting the whole team. While the leader could choose to turn a blind eye to what you’re saying tell you that they need to work then and get out emails. They may, though doubtful, even say that they do expect people to work the weekends. While this is all pretty telling of them and gives you good insight for future decisions, it would be really hard for them to take a negative stance toward you based on a statement like the one above. Most leaders would be grateful for the insight in how their actions are impacting the team and appreciate your taking a positive and expansive view.

I can think of opportunities for myself to have ‘coached up’ all of these men rather than nagging or beating them up with criticism.

So my question is then, if we put this much thought into the feedback we give those above us at work and we understand it can yield really positive results, why aren’t we doing that in more spaces? We change the way we give feedback because they are above us in the organization but what if we treated everyone we gave feedback to with that kind of selectiveness, strategy, and respect? What would happen if you put that same level of intentionality into the feedback you give your team? Your feedback to your kids? Or most of all to your spouse? How would the ‘fight’ go differently if instead of saying, you NEVER take care of any of the cleaning and I have to do all of it, you tried, I understand we both have a lot of priorities that we want to get to and you’re always telling me to do them. It is really difficult for me to do when I have this much cleaning to get done. Would it be possible for you to take on xyz so that we both have time this week? How disarming would that be? Sure, like with our manager, it may not actually change but it has a heck of a better chance handled that way.

So do coach up your boss, and others within the organization when you get the opportunity. Then also take a position of service and respect to the other people in your life. How would your relationships and world be different if you were always, coaching up?

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