Here’s a typical story: Peter was away from the office for three days. Most of the team thought he’d been on a business trip, but when he returned, he was keen to tell them about the course he’d been on. “From now on,” he told them, “I’m not just the team leader. I’m the team coach. Instead of telling you what to do, I’m going to help you work things out for yourselves.”

For the rest of the day, Peter responded to requests for advice with questions such as “What do you think would be the best solution?” or “If you did have the answer, what might it be?”

At first, members of the team were bemused – one commented behind his back “I don’t know what pills he’s been taking, but I’d quite like to get some!”. Then they became irritated, with a sense that they were being manipulated.

After three days, a minor crisis arose with a customer. The entire team breathed a sigh of relief when Peter’s behavior suddenly reverted to normal. The crisis only lasted a couple of days afterwards, after which, although Peter occasionally made half-hearted attempts to return to the coaching approaches he had learned on the course, he and the team were essentially “back to normal”.

In interviews with hundreds of line managers and their teams over the past five years, this story – or ones like it – typifies what happens when line managers go on “sheep dip” programs to learn how to coach. The three days it took Peter to revert to type is about average. Time and time we hear from heads of HR or Training and Development that millions of dollars invested in trying to turn line managers into coaches have had minimal effect.

It’s not surprising, then, that many coaching pundits (and particularly those with a vested interest in promoting the virtues of externally resourced, professional coaches) maintain that line managers by and large can’t at the same time be coaches. Based on the experience of a small number of pioneering employers in England, that’s not a view we subscribe to. Although there are, indeed, considerable practical barriers to effective line manager coaching, these are possible to overcome. The key, these organizations have found, is shifting the focus of change from the line manager alone, to the team as a whole.

What appears to be happening is this. After a relatively short time working together, teams and their managers develop norms of behavior, based on assumptions and mindsets that can be surprisingly inflexible. What happens between them has become a system and one of the fundamental laws of systems is that, when one part of a system undergoes change, the rest of the system works hard to bring it back into equilibrium – which usually means to return it to the way it was before. So when the line manager attempts to adopt a coaching style, resistance is inevitable, not least because it takes everyone outside of their comfort zone. The manager usually lacks confidence in applying their new learning and therefore tends to be rather mechanical and obvious in applying whatever model they have been taught. It doesn’t help, either, that simplistic coaching models, such as GROW, have only limited relevance to complex, behavioral change. The coachee has little understanding of what is going on, and can’t help the process a great deal. Where the coaching succeeds in making the coachee think deeply, it is an experience, which can readily bring out strong emotions of threat and insecurity. For both coach and coachee, coaching is hard work, both intellectually and emotionally – and neither may have signed up for that. So any opportunity to opt out may be seized upon with both hands.

A study by Stephen Ferrar, for Oxford Brookes University, identified a range of behaviors and habits by line managers and their teams, which exacerbate the problem. Among these are:

  • The tendency for managers and direct reports to fall into “parent-child” roles in any conversation
  • The sense that both parties may have hidden agendas (for example, on the manager’s part about their plans to reorganize the team and on the employee’s part about how long they intend to stay with the company)
  • Conflict between the employee’s desire for some things to remain confidential and the manager’s accountability for the welfare and performance of the team as a whole
  • Conflict between pressure to deliver short term task objectives and the longer term development needs of team members
  • Groupthink. People, who work together, tend to adopt the same filters on the world around them and have the same blind spots. Paradoxically, the better the relationship between line manager and learner, the more likely this is to be the case.
  • Inequality in who gets coaching. Time pressures often mean that the manager concentrates coaching on particular individuals or subgroups of the team. This could be either because he or she sees they have bigger performance problems, or greater potential. If the former, people often resent being “picked on”; if the latter, other people resent being left out. In such situations, the line manager/ coach can’t win!

So why are we optimistic about the potential for line manager coaching? One reason is that it is possible to change the environment by challenging assumptions, which underlying current practice. For example, there is a general, if often implicit, assumption that coaching is something done to direct reports, rather than with them. When the coaching process is owned by both coach and coachee, and both take accountability for making it work, then the coachee helps the coach help them. An immediate effect is often that people approach their manager to seek coaching, rather than wait to be told they need it. Moreover, wherever we have seen teams, which demonstrate a coaching culture, the role of the manager is not to do coaching but to create the environment, where coaching happens. So team members also coach each other and, in many cases, coach their boss. (One of the simplest things a manager can do to encourage this kind of mindset is to share their own personal development needs with their team and ask for their feedback and help!)

Another false assumption is that people can be taught to coach in one intensive burst of training. This might be true, if coaching were simply a skill or process, but in reality it is a mindset and a relationship. As such, it takes time to “get into the blood”. It requires months of collaborative practice to build competence and confidence.

Which is why companies such as Asda and University College London have focused on creating a coaching environment in work teams. Teams and their managers in these initiatives learn about coaching in a series of modules, which require them to complete learning materials (for example, podcasts, reading material and self-diagnostics) individually, reflect upon them and then share their reflections in a team meeting, which may or may not be facilitated by someone outside the team. The first module is always one covering the benefits to the team and the business from embracing coaching behaviors.

Critical to the process are psychological safety, although this may take time to establish, and relating the learning at each stage to current issues facing the team. In this way, the habit of coaching becomes ingrained.

The lesson of that companies take this approach drawis that assisting teams to have learning conversations about coaching makes it more relevant to them and greatly reduces the impact of barriers to coaching. In particular, these teams find it easier to identify and confront behaviors that undermine coaching.

Bibliography

Ferrar, Phillip (2006) The Paradox of Manager as Coach: Does being a manager inhibit effective coaching?” thesis submitted to Oxford Brookes University

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