The 3 most common pitfalls for managers coaching staff

Aly McNicoll

There are core differences between managing conversations and coaching conversations, and it is often hard for a manager to switch roles and truly function as a coach with their own staff.

The 3 most common pitfalls that managers tell us they fall in to when coaching are advising,reassuring and losing objectivity and/or neutrality. Have a look at these and see if you recognise them.

Pitfall number 1: Advising

You quickly get a fix on what the issue is and like a guided missile lock on to what you think is the obvious solution. You make suggestions for action or ask questions that contain the solution. 'Have you thought about...'  or 'Why didn't you...'. Sometimes this is driven by your own anxiety triggered by hearing the problem. Sometimes it is driven by the need to be helpful.

In either case, the pitfall is the same. It robs the staff member of the opportunity to think it through them selves and thus gain the confidence to self solve when similar issues arise in the future. Your advice will come from your own database of experience and will probably be an ideal solution for you if you were in their problem situation. It is unlikely to be a good match for the unique staff member you have sitting in front of you.

The classic signal that you have moved in to advising or offering premature solutions  is the 2 magic words you will hear from your staff member in response: "Yes, but...".  They will then tell you why they couldn't do that and will often feel criticised or corrected in the process.  'Yes but...' is a good signal to back off, keep listening, use exploratory questions and allow their own thinking processes to unfold.

Number 2: Reassuring

Telling someone that their problem is not as bad as it seems may seem like a helpful response at first glance. After all, it comes from a place of compassion. 'It'll be all right, you'll see' tends to place a big full stop on the coaching conversation and can feel patronising to the staff member.

If they are talking about their anxieties regarding a big presentation coming up on Friday, don't say 'I'm sure you'll be fine. I have seen you present and your were fabulous.' Rather remind them of their strengths then ask them what it is about Friday's presentation that is causing them the angst.  This will provide some excellent coaching material.

Number 3: Losing neutrality and objectivity

'But their problems are my problems' we often hear managers say. Remaining neutral is probably the biggest challenge for the manager coach as there is an inherent conflict of interest when the person coaching is also the person responsible for the performance management or review process. Neutrality and objectivity are key strengths that coaches bring to conversations. As a manager, resisting the temptation to make judgements or form impressions about someone's competence based on what they tell you takes a great deal of discipline.

Remaining neutral enables you to ask the naïve questions, find other perspectives and look for possibilities or ways forward when coaching staff.  It may help to remind your self of the purpose of the coaching conversation. Viewing the person in terms of their future potential not simply their past performance is an essential stance for a good coach.

Use coaching questions, don't provide answers

Questions require the staff member to engage their thinking and participate in some extra reflection on or around their problem. Even in those brief exchanges you have with staff where they ask you what to do about X or Y, you can adopt a coaching approach by simply asking a question like 'So what have you thought of so far?'. By increasing your coaching skills in the areas of active listening and artful questioning plus raising your awareness of the common pitfalls, you will experience immediate results from your staff coaching conversations.

Email Aly McNicoll for details of our 'Managers as Coaches - developing people and performance' course or for your copy of '99 Coaching Questions'.

Aly McNicoll

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