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Four ways to turn your managers into coaches
Dave Winsborough
Created on
July 11, 2023

Once upon a time a manager’s life was easy. They’d come into work, tell people what to do and check if it got done at the end of the day.  Benevolent leaders might show you how to do unknown tasks; merciless and malevolent bosses might remove your fingernails until you got it. Command and control were the management fads of the last century.

Today however, persecution, humiliation and physical harm are all out and manager coaching is in. Disappointment for the bullies and autocrats! Whipping has paused while morale is high.

It’s actually worse for followers of the old-school – productivity rises under managers who ask questions instead of giving answers, who balance their own opinions with those of their staff, and who spend time coaching the people who work for them.  

A study by Lazear, Shaw and Stanton of Stanford Business School found that replacing a bad boss with a good one produced a productivity gain equivalent to adding another team member to a 9-person team.  Workers under bad bosses are more likely to leave, whereas those working for a good boss are more likely to stay.  And another study found that coaching by managers has positive impacts on work performance, well-being, coping with demands, positive work attitudes, and goal focus.  And to be clear, that effect on performance is pretty large.

It’s one thing to advocate coaching as a positive leader behaviour. But how, exactly, do good managers do coaching? We’ve combed the evidence and spoken to some top coaches to come up with a straightforward guide. Here’s the Deeper Signals guide to manager coaching.

1. Get your own mindset straight. 

For coaching to be effective, the manager has to demonstrate a belief, or faith if you will, that their job is to make their team members successful.  Put more bluntly, coaching is about them, not you.  If staff feel that their boss is truly interested in them thriving – personally and professionally – the base conditions are set.

2. Breathe through your nose. 

Most managers get frustrated that staff don’t “get it” and think its much easier to tell someone how to do something rather than suffer all their errors, slowness, stumbling, bumbling and confusion (coaching can be frustrating – if you are a control freak).  Managers need to remember that the balance of asking questions to providing answers should be about 75:25.  

3. Be safe. 

Imagine you are a junior doctor in an operating room, and you just spotted the lead neurosurgeon forget to put a clamp on a leaking blood vessel.  You are about to speak out, but the memory of the verbal humiliation you received last time is still vivid.  What do most people do? Psychological safety is an environment where people can speak up, make mistakes, voice contrary views and express emotions without fear.  Remember, a fear driven team might give you their hands, but never their hearts.  

4. Follow the GROW model. 

Developed over 40 years ago, this model brought lessons from tennis psychology to the business world.  It’s a simple and memorable acronym to guide manager’s coaching conversations:

  1. Goal: What do we want or need to accomplish?
  2. Reality: What’s the current situation and what’s in our way?
  3. Options: What could be done? What resources or skills can be brought to bear? What do you need to do differently?
  4. Way forward: What’s the next steps and what’s your accountability?

Perhaps the best example of how powerful this approach can be is seen in the transformation of Microsoft from its stodgy, arrogant (and lagging) culture to one that is more nimble, innovative and successful. Numerous articles have credited the CEO, Satyla Nadella with adopting and expecting a growth mindset from his managers. To quote, “We must transition from a group of ‘know-it-all’s to a group of ‘learn-it-all’s’”. Those leaders who empower their managers to become coaches, building a culture of feedback, support and humility, are those who will be rewarded with an engaged and high-performance workforce.

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