Building Workplace Relationships


Maria Simpson, Ph.D.

One-on-one coaching is expected to have a positive impact on the staff member receiving coaching. But, consistent with systems theory (change one part of an organization or structure and all the parts that interact with it change, too), one-on-one coaching can impact relationships, teams or departments, and sometimes even the whole organization.

Personal Change

The primary impact of coaching is on the staff member who received the coaching and is related to his or her ability to reach the goals that were defined at the beginning of the coaching process. These may have included improved performance, more effective communications skills especially in conflict resolution, better staff management and delegation, or perhaps mastery of a new skill needed for a new assignment. Those are obvious results.

However, the situation that generated the need for coaching didn’t happen overnight, so it is important to be patient and allow some time for the results to be demonstrated. It takes time to absorb the information from coaching, practice the new skills, and incorporate them into daily behavior. The results may not be obvious or consistent for a while, and a follow-up coaching session or two to reinforce the lessons of coaching and provide support during a time of change can be very helpful. A staff member doesn’t simply end the coaching “course,” take some kind of exam, and move on. The developmental process continues over time.

The most important result of coaching, though, may be the least tangible. If coaching was effective, the staff member will be more confident, less tense and frustrated, less in need of close supervision, and more effective in general. Simply receiving performance support may be of more help to the staff member than the specifics learned in the coaching sessions. Knowing that there was someone to talk to, someone who was not judging performance in every conversation, someone whose job was to be supportive even when providing negative feedback may be the primary benefit of working with an external coach.


Interpersonal Change

When staff members are more effective, relationships among department or team members improve. Someone who is less tense, less defensive, and more productive will have different relationships from someone who is tense, defensive, and unproductive, even if they are the same person.

With increased proficiency comes increased productivity and a greater sense of confidence and satisfaction. And a greater sense of confidence will increase the staff member’s communications and contributions to the department. Because the staff member will have better communication skills, teamwork will also improve.

In addition, the relationship between the supervisor and the staff member will improve as a result of coaching. Sometimes the manager’s greater sense of satisfaction with the staff member’s performance will be demonstrated in easier communications, more compliments, or more effective feedback. In any case, the communications will be more honest and thoughtful, in part because they may occur more often. Sometimes a relationship is strained because there is no communication. Easing this primary relationship will have a positive effect on the whole office.

On the other hand, if the primary problem for the staff member was a difficult relationship with the manager, then the coach may ask for a meeting with both of them to sort out the issues. I have tried this in several cases, some meetings to help both parties plan for the future, some to sort out differences, some to provide a model for positive communications for the future. I am present during these meetings to provide a safety net and feedback that will help both parties (who may be a bit apprehensive about what their first conversation after coaching will be like) try out their new relationship. These meetings are most often very helpful.

Organizational Change

Coaching a group or team will, of course, have an impact on the wider organization. The team will become more efficient and get more done. Their decisions will be more effectively reached because team members will be comfortable raising issues and handling disagreement. Participation in discussions will increase. The skills and approaches the team learns will also filter down through the organization as members of the team have an impact on other teams in which they participate.

Those results are obvious and expected. The organizational impact of coaching a single person, though, can be unanticipated and significant, and may be structural or relational.

Let me give you three examples of how coaching a single person can generate organizational change.

In once case, I coached a manager who was strongly criticized by her supervisor for a variety of ineffective behaviors. The manager, of course, had her own version of what was going wrong, and it was clear that there was no agreement between the two on what was generating the negative performance reviews and the strained relationship.

After working with the manager on the performance issues, I realized that the real issue was the relationship, not the manager’s specific behaviors. They simply did not see the situation in the same way and could not understand each other’s point of view. I suggested a meeting with both staff members and others from the organization who could listen to the issues raised and consider ways of addressing them that were outside my ability to act.

At the meeting, some relationship issues became more evident than they had been before, some negative individual behaviors which had not been seen before became obvious, and some organizational issues that had not been recognized were identified. That sounds like a quick fix and a productive meeting, but the meeting was angry, emotional, long, and draining. No one went home happy.

As a result, though, and over the next few months, some of the issues that could not have been addressed in one-on-one coaching were considered by the organization’s management team and structural changes were made to address them. One person’s work load was evaluated and determined to be about twice what it should have been, something that had been argued about all along, so the work was divided, additional staff were hired, and salaries were adjusted appropriately. That’s a structural change initiated by the information gained in one-on-one coaching.

As a coach, I could not have initiated those changes on my own through one-on-one coaching. Solving the real problem was up to the organization. My role was to identify the problem as being larger than could or should be addressed in coaching.

In a second case, I brought an issue to the attention of management, but it was not addressed by the person to whom I spoke and who had the authority to address it. Over a year later, a new manager in that position remembered the conversation and took the action I recommended. An organizational approach was changed resulting in greater recognition for contributions and accomplishments.

In a third case, I realized that performance issues were really relationship issues that would not change, as is often the case. The relationship had become so poisoned that the staff member would never be fully accepted back into the department and would always feel as if someone were looking for a reason to fire her.

There weren’t many alternatives to consider. There were no other positions to which this staff member could transfer, and even if there had been, the organizational gossip would have followed the staff member, affecting her ability to fit into a new situation.

In this case, the focus of coaching changed from trying to improve the relationship to preparing the staff member for a job search. This shift suited everyone’s needs. The staff member felt supported for starting a job search, the organization did not have to take an action that might have escalated into a lawsuit, and coaching had a positive effect. This, too, is organizational change that occurs as a result of one-on-one coaching.

Like all changes that result from coaching, organizational change takes time to implement and even more time to recognize. Patience is key.

©2007 Maria Simpson

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Maria Simpson, Ph.D. * Los Angeles, CA * Phone: 641-715-3900 x 1376932 Fax: 310-826-7440 *

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