Six Great Leadership Coaching Questions

Article summary: This article critiques six coaching questions as described by the popular coach, author and speaker, Marshall Goldsmith. While originally developed to help senior executives, including CEOs build organisational alignment; this article suggests that these questions could easily be used by a manager in any line-manager / direct report scenario. One question (4.1) can be used in many coaching contexts. In addition, the article emphasises the need for a positive frame when giving feedback, as research shows that negative feedback endures longer, whereas the effect of positive feedback can be fleeting.

It would appear reasonable to conclude that feedback in a 1:1 session would lead to improved job performance. Research by Kluger and DeNisi, which combined the results of 600 other studies, showed that while feedback interventions were broadly linked with improved performance in two-thirds of respondents; the other third showed evidence of decreased performance after receiving feedback. There appears to be both scope and a solid rationale to improve our feedback processes.

‘One third showed evidence of decreased performance after receiving feedback’

These 6 coaching questions might be a good place to start improving our feedback processes. They come from possibly the most straight-talking and disarming coach of our time, Marshall Goldsmith. He has that down-to-earth, approachable quality that Americans can do so well. Us Europeans are more inclined to try to dazzle with our intellect, whereas Americans tend to excel at keeping-it-simple. And Europeans have much to learn from the folk on the other side of the pond, particularly when it comes to giving constructive feedback, which is a very challenging thing to do well, and where simplicity is something to strive for.

This six-question format is best suited to a 1:1 dialogue between a manager and her direct report. One question, which I call question 4.1 could be useful in many coaching conversations. At first sight, this series of questions may seem a very obvious way to structure a conversation. And that is the beauty of it. It is simple: and that is probably why it works. The questions in quotes are taken directly from Marshall’s video; and the comments include some analysis.

Question 1: big picture.

Manager: “Where are we going?” Then the manager provides the big picture, sharing where she sees the organisation going.

Then she asks: “Where do you think we should be going?” This opens up a dialogue.

Question 2: small picture.

Manager asks: “Where are you going? This is where I see you and your part of the business going.…Where do you think you should be going?” This aligns the big- and the small picture.

Question 3: doing well.

The manager shares where she sees the person is doing well. Then she asks: “Where do you think you are doing well? Is there something you did that you are particularly proud of?”

This can help the manager learn where the employee sees their strengths, and possibly even identify something they are passionate about. Why are strengths important? Research suggests that using one’s strengths is linked to higher productivity, engagement and even flow. (Flow is when you get ‘lost in music’ in a positive way when working. Sadly, it is a more common experience for painters and musicians, than the typical employee!)

‘This can help the manager learn where the employee sees their strengths. Why is identifying strengths important? Research suggests that using our strengths is linked to higher productivity, engagement and even flow’

Question 4: suggestions for Improvement. Feed forward, not feeding back.

Manager says: “Here are some suggestions for how I could see you do even better in the future.”

She places limited focus on past sins. Focussing on “what went wrong” can encourage a sense of shame, which is not helpful. Research by a Professor Baumeister at Florida University suggests that: “Bad things affect us more than good things”. Negative feedback appears to endure for longer, whereas the positive impact of praise can be fleeting. This has significant implications for review systems. After all, we want the employee to walk out of the meeting feeling good about themselves and motivated?

‘Negative feedback appears to endure for longer, whereas the positive impact of praise can be fleeting’

Question 4.1: “If you were the coach for you, what advice would you give you?”

This can be a very powerful question; and the manager needs to listen carefully. This can reveal insight and help the individual learn to help themselves, which will enhance their feeling of self-efficacy and competence, which in turn will help them perform better.

Question 5: what do you need from me to do your job?

Manager asks: “How can I help you?”

Question 6: show me how can I be a better manager to you?

Manager asks: “What suggestions do you have for me so that I can be a better manager?”

To conclude the manager says:

“Once every 2 or 3 months, I am going to go over these topics with you. If at anytime you feel a sense of ambiguity, confusion, or you are not clear on priorities, please take responsibility for this and let me know. If I take responsibility for this part, checking in as part of a 1:1 every two or three months and you take responsibility for the other part, there is no reason we can have any lack of clarity, or confusion.” Marshall emphasises how this builds mutual reasonability for clear communication. Furthermore, assuming that the manager responds to questions as required, this lays the foundation for a solid, successful working relationship.

Conclusion

So can Marshall’s questions be improved? Possibly yes. Another option is to first ask the employee to rate their own performance before the manager shares her opinion. This is particularly relevant for question 2: “Where are you going?; question 3: “What is going well?” and question 4: “How can you do even better in future?” This is line with the philosophy of the best-selling sporting and business coach, John Whitmore who said: “Generating quality feedback (…from the coachee rather than anyone else) is essential for continuous improvement.” He advocates giving the coachee the space to come up with their own answer, as opposed to the manager imparting well-intentioned insight. He believes, as many other coaches do that this approach is more conducive to growth, self-reliance and the person ‘owning‘ their performance.

‘This approach is simple and easy to follow. Simplicity is a highly underrated quality, particularly when it comes to communication.

While it would be optimal for the manager to allow her direct report find all the answers by asking thoughtful, well-crafted, questions (and to refrain from giving any opinion), this is not necessarily very realistic. Why? We live in a fast-paced working world where the manager has targets, and multiple deadlines. Furthermore, the manager may not have the training, or interest to ‘coach’ in that way. Nonetheless, this six-question process as suggested by Marshall, combined with allowing the person to speak first on the questions that directly relate to the their performance, will help the manager curb her tendency to be prescriptive, and could make the 1:1 feedback more motivating. Importantly, this approach is simple and easy to follow. Simplicity is a highly underrated quality, particularly when it comes to communication. Adopting these six questions might well make the typically dreaded quarterly review a more enjoyable and engaging experience, for manager and direct report alike.

Any comments to add? If you enjoyed it, or learned something you might use, please press the like button, or share on social media. Thank you!

References are listed in order of appearance in the article.

Marshall’s 6 Leadership Questions Video on Youtube.

Fun fact: Marshall Goldsmith’s most famous book is: “What got you here, Won’t get you there.” Read reviews here.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general psychology, 5(4), 323.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological bulletin, 119(2), 254.

John Whitmore, 2002. Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – the Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership (People Skills for Professionals), Find reviews here. The cited quote is on page 128.

Fun fact: John Whitmore developed the popular GROW coaching model: Set a Goal, explore Reality, evaluate Options and find a Way/ Will forward.

Nualan O'Brien
Nualan O'Brien
Nualan O’Brien has a background in online content development, and freelance journalism; and has also lectured at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. Read more...

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