The ‘Power of Positive’: A New HR Method from Sports Coaches


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When, earlier this year, Boston Celtics’ new addition Kyrie Irving (who was at the time a point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers) stated during the course of a podcast that he is a firm believer that the Earth is flat, social media and news outlets went into a frenzy. Even middle school students began challenging science teachers around the country about the shape of the Earth.

Was the statement an effort to gain publicity, or was Irving being genuine? We will never know. However, the events got me thinking about how professional athletes are like any other employee: they are full of quirks, have varying beliefs and personalities, and carry plenty of personal issues.

The media also reported that Irving was at odds with the Cavs because he was tired of hovering in LeBron James’s shadow, feeling he could not progress in his career. So, although we might not think about it when we watch a pro game on TV, players are just like anyone else in the workplace. They can be different in their work ethics, have different goals; and sometimes, at worst, some are difficult, emotional, self-centered, or hold grudges and dislikes toward their teammates.

Indeed, several parallels can be drawn between a pro sports team and a traditional company, as well as between the Human Resources profession and coaching. Like a coaching staff, HR pros deal with numerous different personalities, and while some are challenging, HR and its employees nonetheless must work together to achieve success for their whole team.

Since 2014, Steve Kerr, head coach, and his colleagues have led the Oakland, California–based Golden State Warriors basketball team to many victories. Like Coach Kerr and his staff, HR professionals play crucial roles in the success of their team by attempting to maintain a productive and positive work environment, championing an organization’s values and culture, hiring talent or making recommendations to transfer workers to other positions to achieve underlying goals and meet the needs of the organization.

Both HR and coaches work hard behind the scenes. While Coach Kerr is present on and off the court, at the end of the games, the players receive the lion’s share of attention for a team’s performance.

The Concept of Positive Coaching

So how should we deal with all of these different personalities, their needs, their wants, and their problems in the workplace to lead them all to success? Think “Positive Coaching.”

Positive Coaching is a technique many coaches throughout the country and across many developmental levels employ to lead athletes to success. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, founded in 1998, “the method is used to encourage athletes with positive reinforcement in order to help them hear and heed the necessary corrections. With that winning combination of truthful, specific praise and constructive criticism, athletic performance improves.” Many of today’s professional athletes have benefited from this coaching strategy.

Here is how to incorporate the Positive Coaching methods in your workplace:

  • Step away from your strategic role and get to know your employees, their personal lives, their interests, and their problems. There is great value in finding time to talk to employees in the kitchen while making coffee, at the lunch table, walking into or out of the building, etc. Creating opportunities to interact through wellness activities, happy hours, special projects, or company outings are most valuable.
  • Grant the low-hanging fruits: approve requests that do not violate a policy or create a precedent.
  • Show empathy and compassion but follow the policies and procedures in place.
  • Provide more communication than needed because more is better than not enough, especially during one-on-one interactions as opposed to companywide.
  • Hold people accountable for their actions (and be honest to the extent it provides the organization legal protection).
  • Reach out via email or phone to those employees you have not seen or talked to in a little while to show that you care.
  • Praise an employee when you have heard that he or she had a difficult conversation with a direct report, worked hard beyond assigned duties, or successfully completed a project.
  • Provide constructive criticism but know when to ignore the small mistakes—because no one is ever perfect!
  • Be consistent, be equitable, and be POSITIVE!

In April, Coach Kerr, who also serves on the national advisory board of the Positive Coaching Alliance, explained at OpenView’s 2017 CEO Forum in San Francisco that a big element of his leadership style is building strong relationships—“real, person-to-person relationships based on compassion, trust, and respect“—which is exactly what HR should aim at achieving.

The role of HR is distinct from that of a CEO, and so are their relationships with employees. HR must build trust and provide support when appropriate. It is crucial to develop a colleague-type relationship as opposed to being seen as an extension of management, a perception from employees that will hinder the possibility of a deep and trusting relationship.

Indeed, an employee I was meeting with for the first time started our conversation by letting me know that he would not seek me out because he did not trust HR, expressing that he had several negative experiences with HR personnel at his previous positions. I was taken aback, since no one had ever been so blunt and honest with me, but I appreciated his forwardness.

In fact, many employees I have talked to throughout my career tend to see HR as either serving a purely bureaucratic function or acting as the internal police who does what management dictates. Others just do not seem to know what HR does all day.

This is why reaching out to employees for no reason other than wanting to get to know them better and providing positive feedback is so important for HR professionals. Transposing the Positive Coaching concepts to the workplace will make a difference in any organization because it advocates just that: building real relationships with people.

To further break this down, below is an attempt to map the core concepts of Positive Coaching to the HR function. Note that I am paraphrasing the organization’s published concepts for the purposes of this exercise. For even more background on Positive Coaching, please visit its website.

All managers would benefit from adopting the above concepts when dealing with their employees. Using the Positive Coaching method will help develop a culture of appreciation and collaboration, which in turn will translate into greater employee engagement.

Florence Richard
Florence Richard is a Director of Human Resources at an Asset Management firm in Sausalito, California. She has 20 years of Human Resources experience. She served as Director of Human Resources at an elite private school in San Francisco. Before that, she worked for several years in venture capital. She received her bachelor’s degree in business and languages from the Sorbonne University in Paris. Florence holds the SPHR® certification with the HR Certification Institute and is a SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP®). Florence grew up in the Caribbean on the French island of Guadeloupe, and has been living in the Bay Area for 20 years.