“Coaching” Works at Work: An EAP Success Story

by Shaun Kieran

Here’s a good example of the way a flexible EAP (Employee Assistance Program) allows a line supervisor to get some needed “coaching” rather than just be forced out or into counseling. A few years ago, a supervisor who had just recently become the Office Manager of a very busy State bureau came to see me, ostensibly about a personal problem on the homefront. She was actually checking me out, because she’d been nudged toward the EAP and told I might be helpful with her true problem – managing people.  She’d been the “trusty right arm” to her predecessor, a woman who’d been a highly-regarded “institution” in that job (fourteen years,) but then suddenly, quickly had been forced to leave due to very advanced Breast Cancer. My client was given the obvious battlefield promotion to Director, but the truth was she wasn’t suited for what the job really was – lion tamer.

Replacing her boss would have been hard under any circumstances, but, making it even worse for herself, my client apparently hadn’t been much paying attention to how her predecessor had operated. Rather than pause and think for half a second, she reacted totally off the top of her head, had trouble owning mistakes and apologizing, and didn’t stroke anybody.  She acted as if she was always under siege.  And some of the people she was alienating were not the obvious, predictable “usual suspects” found in any bureaucracy, but also included some of her most ardent early supporters and natural allies.

Of course, there were also problems at home. Her essentially good marriage was currently under strain because she and her husband disagreed about how to handle their youngest daughter, who had bombed out of her Freshman year at college (costing a lot of un-refundable money,) was now home, unemployed – and sleeping in most mornings.

This piece was classic EAP: a meeting with my client and her husband focusing on the need for the two of them to get back on the same page, be both understanding AND firmly, consistently focused with their daughter, to present options with timelines and, above all, to monitor and follow-through.

Meanwhile back at the workplace, a small delegation had already gone over my client’s head to her boss –conveying frustration and anger at what she was like to deal with now. To my client’s great credit, her basic  reaction was hurt rather than anger, defiance, or denial – the reactions most common these days. With that as our point of departure we were finally able to get to how truly anxious she’s been – not just recently, for obvious reasons, but nearly all of her life. She said that watching her boss all those years had been like being front row center for a virtuoso performance. She admired it, and was gratified to be associated with her boss’s “success,” but now realized she had no clue how her boss had pulled it all off. “I’m wired differently.  I can’t put up with that much crap. I ignore it until I’ve had enough. I see what I see.”

To make a long story short, our brief coaching focused on listening skills – especially including listening to herself – managing those feelings, learning to not be afraid to know something but choose a private moment to say what needs to be said, and also being slightly more collaborative in her approach. That meant more communication, earlier, from her to her colleagues. The coaching was only for about six weeks. Having one person, not her supervisor, with whom she could speak from the heart about situations she hadn’t prepared for, made a huge difference. She became more relaxed – which was perceived in the workplace immediately.

I wish I could say they all lived happily ever after, but it rarely works that way.  Things were better, and the entire office benefited from the relatively small – but real  – changes my client made. Still, it wasn’t a total metamorphosis, and the truth was she never really got comfortable managing such a busy, relentlessly boisterous operation. She weathered the storm with dignity, picked her moment, and then slid sideways into a smaller, quieter department just shy of the second anniversary of her promotion.

I heard directly from some co-workers how relieved everyone was.  From the Employee Assistance viewpoint that was how “coaching” produced a win-win.

Contact me at:

  spskieran@myfairpoint.net

                                                                                                                                    or:  (207) 767-3864

                                                                                                                                     Thanks!

                                                                                                                                    Shaun

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