Coaching, and Some Choice Four Letter Words

Written by Ellen McDermott, Oe Advisor

shutterstock_46817356Forgive me as I get nostalgic for a moment and reflect back on my youthful days as a platoon leader in the Army.

I was a military police officer stationed in Germany, blessed to serve and command a platoon that was forty soldiers strong.  We were field support, which meant that our main focus was literally out “in the field” living out of our rucksacks training for combat support missions.  Many a day was spent getting muddy and cold, barely sleeping, eating bad food and drinking even worse coffee; and yet, this falls in that wonderful space of being the most stressful and yet the most enjoyable time of my life—all because of the dedicated soldiers with whom I served.

But even the best of us will drift.  And there came one very memorable and very long day in the field when drift became noticeable across the entire platoon—cutting corners, grumbling, moving slowly, and generally just not being the driven soldiers we aspire to be.  The frustration began to trickle up through the squad leaders to my platoon sergeant, and as the hours passed, even my temper started to flare.  And then it happened.  Standing in front of my platoon formation, I said a curse word.  Jaws dropped.

Obviously this was not the first time my soldiers had ever heard a leader curse.  In our world, a curse every other word was pretty much “the norm.”  But in the two years I served as their platoon leader, this was the first time anyone had heard me curse.  And when dismissed from formation, it was now my jaw that dropped, and that of my platoon sergeant’s, as the soldiers moved forward with a renewed and vigorous sense purpose—just from one tiny curse word.  It was so effective that from that day forward, my platoon sergeant would occasionally come to my office and ask, “Ma’am, this is one of those times. Would you please use a curse word?”

I share this story because I want to explain that while coaching is intended to be the highest form of accountability, it isn’t always going to be the hardest form of accountability.  We define coaching as “a values-supportive discussion with the employee on the need to engage in better behavioral choices.”  In later conversations, my very wise platoon sergeant explained to me that the reason that one curse word was so effective was because it was indeed that values-supportive moment. My platoon needed me to acknowledge just how tough that situation was, and by showing my very human moment of frustration, I also showed them that I was standing right there with them in the muck.

We’re very careful as Advisors to never tell anyone exactly how to do coaching, because only you can decide what’s appropriate for your organizational culture.  So am I saying go out and use cursing to get someone’s attention? Absolutely not!  In most workplaces that will be seen as punitive—clearly defeating the intent of coaching.  This was a good fit in this one unique organizational culture at that unique moment.  But I hope as Champions and leaders we don’t become so focused on the formal process that we lose sight of the intent of coaching—that very human moment of saying, “I see the situation, I’m standing here with you in this, and we can do better.”


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