How managers can be better coaches (not taskmasters)
“If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.”
Too often, managers fall into the trap of simply giving their employees a fish - or in this case, all the answers. “Do as I say and you will succeed” is, unfortunately, not an uncommon approach to management. While it means that managers may get the exact behaviours they want from their employees, it’s not actually an effective approach to management.
The best managers equip their people with the skills and tools they need to succeed in their roles. In particular, this involves building problem-solving and critical thinking skills, which will empower employees to adapt to changing circumstances and make the right decisions independently.
There is a fine line between being an effective coach and an authoritarian taskmaster, so how can managers ensure that they stay on the right path and truly leverage their employees’ talent?
Creating a healthy coaching culture
Many managers avoid coaching conversations altogether, because they can often seem uncomfortable or challenging, especially where negative feedback is concerned. However, it is only with feedback that employees can learn and improve in the workplace, so managers who don’t engage in these conversations are only doing themselves a disservice.
A healthy coaching culture should be supportive, open and honest. Employees shouldn’t dread their performance conversations, and managers should have the confidence to raise issues tactfully and in a non-accusatory way. Managers and employees should be aligned around common organisational and team-wide goals to help focus attention and efforts on the right activities and results for the best chance of success.
To achieve this, there are three main components of a great coaching culture.
Informal feedback: day-to-day conversations
Every manager gives feedback every single day, whether they realise it or not. Informal feedback generally isn’t recorded anywhere, but it helps provide small “nudges” to let employees know that they are on the right track or need to change something about their work.
The key here is “little and often.” Informal feedback doesn’t need to be a full conversation - this feedback could be given in the break room, across the desk or sent as a quick instant message online. Managers of hybrid teams should also remember to include remote workers in the informal feedback process, ensuring everyone benefits from these behavioural nudges and knows where they stand day to day.
An example of this informal feedback might be: “Great job on the ABC Retail presentation! I can see you’ve worked hard on your pacing and it really paid off.”
Semi-formal feedback: scheduled, regular check-ins
The majority of employees actively want more feedback. Scheduling in performance check-ins ensures that managers and employees have the chance to sit down at an agreed time (perhaps monthly or quarterly) to discuss performance achievements, challenges, blockers and goals.
These check-ins might cover progress towards objectives, potential learning opportunities (which may be suggested by the manager or by the employee themselves), feedback from others, changed priorities, new organisational initiatives and more.
This is also a great opportunity for the manager to coach their employees. For instance, if the employee raises a work challenge they are facing, the manager can coach them through a potential solution and point them towards relevant training and resources to help them in the future.
Formal feedback: performance reviews
Performance reviews (usually annual appraisals) tend to be one of the most-dreaded days of the year for managers and employees alike. Managers don’t like giving negative feedback, and employees worry about being blindsided with feedback that appears to be coming out of the blue.
While performance reviews are a time to review the previous year’s performance, they are also an opportunity for managers to inspire, motivate and encourage their employees for the year ahead. They can reflect on their coaching relationship from the previous year, discuss what worked and what didn’t and establish a plan of action going forward.
During the performance review, employees and managers should identify and agree on some beneficial skills and behaviours to work on in the coming year. For instance, resilience, creativity, time management and leadership skills are among the top 10 most-needed workplace skills according to the World Economic Forum, so coaching employees in these areas would be a useful place to start.
How to deliver better feedback
Feedback conversations should be a two-way street. Instead of managers reeling off a list of feedback and expecting the employee to accept it without question, there should be a dialogue between the manager and employee to contextualise the feedback and understand how to put any guidance into action.
Managers should also listen to a range of opinions and assessments of each employee’s performance through 360 feedback. Managers can solicit feedback from an employee’s teammates, other teams, senior leaders and even vendors and customers outside the organisation to fully understand their performance and reduce bias. This feedback should then be presented to the employee, who should have a chance to reflect and respond to this holistic overview of their performance.
Selecting the right coaching and mentoring support
Coaching is a continuous process, and should be built into the day-to-day management process. Along with coaching comes continuous learning and continuous performance management, meaning that coaching isn’t a one-and-done conversation. This powerful combination of informal, semi-formal and formal performance conversations ensures that coaching remains front of mind for both managers and employees, and keeps the entire organisation on track and working towards common goals.
Additionally, an employee’s line manager may not always be the right coach. For instance, a female employee at a male-dominated STEM organisation may be looking to break into a leadership role. Her male manager may decide to assign her a female coach in a senior role to share her unique perspective. Managers could even look outside the organisation to find a professional career coach who can help employees achieve their specific career goals.
Whichever approach a manager takes, it’s a guarantee that employees will benefit greatly from a coach, not a taskmaster. If you coach your employees to improve their skills, they will enjoy career development over a lifetime - not just today.
Chief Learning Officer, Totara