Counseling is possibly the most misunderstood and badly practiced team leadership skill. For example, mentoring, training, and performance coaching can each involve counseling as a non-directive leadership skill. On the other hand, counseling as part of an employee disciplinary process is not a leadership skill, but a directive personnel management technique appropriate to supervisory roles. Leader counseling focuses on reinforcing desired behavior while supervisory counseling focuses on re-directing undesirable behavior. Some techniques applied for each type of counseling are very similar, but this conflict between the goals of counseling in leadership development and operational management causes confusion and poor application of the skill.
Professional counselors, working in schools, business, churches, clinics, or other facilities, typically have specialized training or credentials in counseling techniques appropriate to their fields. Few leaders outside of those specialties qualify as professional counselors. However, most leaders can be effective counselors in the context of their team or group responsibilities with only a few guidelines and practice applying related techniques.
Leaders, or anyone aspiring to leadership, can absorb a basic understanding of those guidelines in a relatively short period using presentations or other training. Practice applying counseling skills in a low stress setting, such as role-playing in a skills workshop, can be of great value for emerging leaders. As these leaders mature, they will be able to build on that foundation through both mentoring and real world application. Indeed, team or group members can often apply the counseling leadership skill in peer-to-peer interactions without the added pressures of a supervisory relationship between the parties.
The leader’s role as a counselor is to give non-directive support and information that let a person decide on a solution or choose a course of action. A leader should avoid giving direct advice or a specific resolution. Counseling team members is important for solving problems, encouraging or reassuring a team member faced with uncertainty, and helping a team member reach his or her potential performance level. Counseling can be effective when a person is undecided and can’t make a decision, confused by available information, or unable to perceive alternatives. Lead counseling is in many ways similar to helping the team member do their own planning.
A leader applying this skill should try to understand the team member’s situation by careful listening, summarizing or paraphrasing what is said, and checking the facts. Then, a counseling leader will help the team member list and evaluate as many options as possible. During evaluation, the counselor should also help list the disadvantages and advantages of the options.
The final goal of leader counseling is to aid the team member to resolve their situation on their own. When a person applies a decision-making, evaluation, or planning process for a current situation, they will typically learn how to apply, or better apply, a similar process when faced with similar situations in the future.
Whether applied for performance coaching, problem-solving, driving change, or to reinforce desired behavior, leader counseling helps develop cohesive teams with high-performing members.