The Art of Challenging Employees

Think about a time when you were challenged by someone to do more or to get better. I would imagine your experience was a lot like mine. Very uncomfortable, yet the experience created awareness that your current level of focus, energy, or behavior was lacking and someone (a teacher, coach, supervisor, parent, spouse, or friend) saw that you were not living up to your capability or potential. It is with this awareness, and perhaps a message that accompanied it, that motivated you to make a change.

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Supervisors who use a coaching approach look for opportunities to challenge employees. They look for places to help people “up their game.” They refuse to let someone be mediocre and use this skill to motivate them toward greater action and achievement.

Here are 5 ways to master the art of challenging employees:

1. Push-back. This is a variation of feedback as it gives you an opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas, perspectives and those of others. You may want to begin your statement with something like, “Please allow me to push-back for a moment.” Pushing-back gets the person being coached out of their own mind-set and thinking about other perspectives.

2. Ask two key challenging questions.

  • “Are you giving your best in this situation?”
  • “If you were to challenge yourself in this situation, what would you do?”

These questions allow the person being coached to think, process, and arrive at their own conclusion about their actions and behavior. For people who are more defensive and guarded, challenging with questions is a very effective approach.

3. Create discomfort. Our human nature seeks comfort. But we don’t progress or learn when we are in a constant state of comfort. To help a person grow we have to guide them to a place of discomfort. There are many ways this can be achieved. A few examples are stretching a person’s goals, asking them to do something differently, or putting the person on a special assignment.

4. Ask for a stretch goal. Research on goal setting and performance tells us that when employees set goals for themselves, they usually set the goal at a level they feel confident they will achieve. This makes sense because we all want to ensure we reach our goals and want to avoid adverse consequences and embarrassment. Stretch goals are goals a person feels less confident in reaching. Stretch goals creates some healthy anxiety that produces motivation to give more focus and effort. When the goal is achieved confidence increases, growth occurs, and satisfaction soars.

5. Accelerate their time line. Accelerating the time line involves moving the target date up for either taking action or achieving a goal. It is easy to say, I’ll take action on this problem by next week. Using the skill of challenge you may want to ask, “What stands in your way of taking action today?” Likewise, people set goal target dates that are comfortable and can be reached with plenty of time to spare. Managers who want to accelerate a person’s goal achievement may make a statement such as, “I bet you can accomplish this goal within the next 30 days. What would it mean to reach your goal quicker?”

Great managers don’t just sit back and expect high performance to happen, nor do they command better performance with dictatorial communication to “get better.” Rather, they use a coaching approach to effectively challenge a person to higher levels of focus, energy, confidence, and personal growth.