How coaching has become a staple of an effective workplace-learning culture, and the ways in which your managers can apply it to their managerial style.

What is coaching?

You might hear the word ‘coaching’ and immediately think of sports teams. Well, you’re right to make that association, but it means so much more off the playing field. Coaching is now one of the most powerful ways to boost workplace performance.

A coach’s role is to help others to develop. But unlike a sports trainer or workplace mentor, a good coach doesn’t need to know everything. They’re not necessarily the experts, nor do they have all the answers. Instead, they know how to draw out those answers from their coachee, through questioning, listening and prompting reflection.

A coaching conversation between coach and coachee will typically have a goal or purpose. The coach will then ask cleverly constructed, open-ended questions, which prompt the coachee to take action to reach said goal. The decision making and responsibility lies with the coachee, and so they have autonomy and power over their own learning.

Why managers need to coach

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to help develop and empower your teams. Through coaching, you can help a team member to navigate through barriers or sticking points.

“What has worked so far?” “Are there specific limiting factors holding you back?” “What haven’t you tried?” “Who have you reached out to for help so far?”

These powerful, thought-provoking questions encourage your team members to adopt a new perspective. Sometimes these questions won’t be obvious to the coachee, and so, by asking them directly, you can completely change their thought process, allowing them to unravel and work around any blockers themselves.

More importantly, your team members will feel empowered to take ownership of their development because they are making their own decisions, rather than carrying out direct orders.

Different approaches to coaching – what’s the best?

Nowadays, there are plenty of varied coaching styles, but three of the most well-known coaching styles are based on Kurt Lewin’s work on leadership styles in the 1930s: [1]

  • Democratic. As the name suggests, this is a collaborative style. A democratic coach will encourage a team member to voice their ideas and make their own decisions. It may be tempting to step in if they’re about to make a mistake, but this style is all about letting your coachee take ownership of their development. Your role as coach is to listen to any concerns and give support when needed.
  • Autocratic. Common in sports, this is the opposite of a democratic approach and is more suitable when you need to act quickly. Autocratic coaches make decisions on behalf of their team member and rarely include them in the decision-making process. While it can create a clear developmental path for your coachee, there is a risk that they will feel excluded or ineffective in their own learning.
  • Holistic. Holistic coaching takes a “big picture” view. It focuses on your team member’s growth and wellbeing not only within their role, but outside of their work too. This style can give the coachee a greater sense of purpose, but it often involves asking difficult questions which may trigger more emotional responses.

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong style to use, but a good coach will be able to adapt their style to fit their coachee and the situation at hand.

There are also two different types of coaching to consider:

  • Formal coaching refers to regular one-on-one sessions, where you work with your coachee for a few months to achieve an agreed goal.
  • Informal coaching is less structured and can be applied in an everyday conversation to tackle a small or one-time issue. Your team member may not even realize that it’s a coaching conversation at all.

Regardless of which style or type of coaching you predominantly use, there are a few things you must do if you’re to be a successful coach:

  • Ask questions. And then ask more.
  • Connect with your coachee.
  • Let them set the tone and pace.
  • Listen. Don’t offer solutions!
  • Identify their resistance to change.

Be better managers

Coaching can be useful in many situations. As a manager, you will sometimes need to identify potential sticking points in your team. Perhaps one of your team members has potential and you want them to challenge themselves, but low self-confidence is standing in their way. This is a great opportunity to encourage them to reflect with questions such as:

  • Where do you see yourself in two years’ time?
  • Is there anything holding you back from taking the next step?
  • What do you think you’re doing well?

Alongside developing someone in their career, coaching also offers an opportunity to help someone to make better decisions and to take a controlled approach when things don’t go according to plan.

For example, a team member could approach you with an emergency problem. Your immediate reaction may be to try to solve the problem yourself, and in some cases, this may be the necessary action. However, this is still an opportunity to ask questions and verify the situation before jumping to conclusions. You can ask questions such as:

  • How serious is this on a scale of one to 10?
  • What is the effect of this?
  • What do you feel is the best way to resolve this?

This controlled approach not only empowers your team to solve problems themselves, but also gives them the confidence that they have a manager who is objective and supportive of their approach. It shows them that their manager makes decisions with them, not for them.

Need to know more?

Coaching someone to come to their own conclusion or answer is hugely beneficial for the coachee, as it catalyzes long-term change and growth. In turn, your empowered, confident and more productive team members benefit you and the wider organization.

Download our FREE 'Managers Matter Bundle - Keeping your skills up to date', to dig deeper into new insights on performance management and reasons why you should develop your managers to be coaches.


[1] Lewin, K. et. al. (1939) 'Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates,' The Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 10, 1939. (Available here.)

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