By Heather Campbell >>
I recently observed an interaction between a senior line manager and their direct report, also a manager. The latter had asked the senior manager for their opinion about something. This senior manager had recently completed a coaching programme that naturally had emphasised that the coach should avoid being directive or imposing views. The senior manager had taken this message to heart and decided to apply it.
As a result, rather than answering what was a direct and reasonable question, he began to coach the individual to help them work out an opinion for themselves. This became a most painful process, with the individual who had raised the original question finally losing patience and saying, “I know what my opinion is. I was simply interested in yours because you’re my manager.”
In his enthusiasm, the senior manager had forgotten that he was a leader, not just a coach. As well as coaching, leaders have to direct, give opinions and set boundaries. These are all essential elements of the role and failing to employ each of them when appropriate means that managers inadvertently abdicate responsibility.
I first came across this potential pitfall many years ago when I was rolling out a coaching skills programme across a management population. The managers embraced the concept with enthusiasm and set forth to coach their teams. A few weeks later, when reviewing and evaluating progress, the impassioned plea came back time and again from team members: “Please tell my manager that it is okay to answer some of my questions. I don’t want every response to be, ‘What do you think you should do?’”
Of course, good leaders coach their staff; this is an essential element of the best manager/team member relationships. However, as definitions of coaching have stretched to cover a host of different activities and the world of professional coaching has become more complex, we seem to have over-complicated what should be a straightforward conversation between a line manager and a direct report.
In my experience, there are four specific times when a manager can usefully coach a team member:
1. When the team member has recently learned new skills. Coaching helps them apply this learning, often with the line manager adding useful advice and guidance during the coaching conversation.
2. When helping a team member identify and embed good practice or build on superior results. Combining coaching with feedback from the line manager bolsters morale and greatly increases the likelihood of a repeat performance.
3. When an experienced team member needs to identify and change poor practice or unsatisfactory performance, particularly in a situation where the individual is not aware of the need to change. Feedback from the line manager, combined with coaching the team member to reflect on their performance and work out how to do things differently next time, increases self-awareness and commitment to change.
4.When a team member brings a problem or an idea to their manager, and the team member has the expertise and experience to work out the way forward. With this one it is useful to check what the team member is seeking – is it a straightforward view from their boss so that they can add that perspective to their deliberations, or do they want the boss’s time and attention to coach them so that they can work out the way forward for themselves?
Time invested in coaching in any of these situations will reap rewards and repay itself many times over. It is motivating for both the manager and the team member, helps build a positive relationship between them and rapidly drives up performance.
On the other hand, when managers – in their enthusiasm to embrace coaching – do so when it is not appropriate, they waste time and frustrate their teams.
As a line manager, how do you decide when to direct and set boundaries for team members or when to coach and open up areas of choice? As a team member, what are your experiences of being coached?