4 Essential Coaching Skills for Overloaded Managers

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  • August 14, 2019

The modern workplace manager is expected to wear many hats. Operations expert. Organizer. Career counselor. Mentor. Friend. Role model. Taskmaster. Problem solver. Peacemaker. And yes, even coach.

Regrettably, that last role is often overlooked, and it can be the trickiest—and the most important. Studies have shown that career development and the opportunity to have purpose-driven conversations are two of the most important factors in employee retention. As a manager, coaching employees (without micromanaging), encouraging their growth, and leveraging the value they bring to the workplace often get pushed to the backburner because of all the other tasks that compete for your time and attention. Moreover, there’s an expectation that every manager is naturally great at coaching and developing employees’ skills and building trust within teams. However, managing and coaching are two distinct skills—plenty of great managers struggle with the coaching aspect of the job, and plenty of people with terrific coaching skills can’t manage themselves out of a box.

This disconnect doesn’t mean managers shouldn’t strive to become better coaches. Employees crave development and need managers to facilitate their growth. In Simply Managing: What Managers Do—and Can Do Better, Henry Mintzberg writes, “Managers are only as good as their ability to work things out thoughtfully in their own way.” Coaching is no exception to this concept. Great managers who see themselves as coaches, and even cheerleaders, for their employees end up helping themselves along the way; when members of a team are working in harmony, realizing their purpose, and building on their strengths, the day-to-day operations that every manager oversees run more smoothly. Here are four ways to build coaching acumen and, in turn, become a better manager.

1. Identify and grow your leadership style

Often, employees who believe their manager is also leading them toward a shared purpose feel a stronger bond with and have greater respect for their manager. In turn, quality leaders experience more productive relationships with the people they manage, thereby positioning themselves to be more effective coaches.

The complementary nature of this dynamic offers tremendous potential, but for it to work, managers must become effective leaders. As we’ve said before, there’s no one absolute correct leadership style, so the most important thing you can do for your employees is to hone your unique skills and learn the value of each leadership framework to create your own style. 

2. Coach, don’t manage

Micromanaging is a big problem, even for well-meaning bosses. Good coaching delivers insight, support, and advice; micromanagement differs in that the insight is self-serving, the support lacks trust, and the advice becomes commands. No one likes a boss looking over their shoulder, and what a manager thinks is coaching might really be just telling an employee to “do this, don’t do that.”

Unfortunately, managers may not know when coaching crosses the line into micromanaging. You want your employees to succeed, but they also need space to realize the growth you’re trying to facilitate. Offer support, but don’t hover. Let employees reasonably fail—the lessons learned from missing a goal can be just as valuable as the ones gained from success. Encourage employees through every outcome and involve them in deciding what they want to learn.

3. Emphasize inclusion

Skill improvement is an obvious goal of coaching, but managers who think beyond the technical results of teaching can achieve something much greater: inclusion. Coaching to change behaviors results in a healthier workplace culture, better creativity and productivity, and more impactful employee development.

In Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias, author La’Wana Harris explores the concept of inclusion coaching and how managers can help develop employees who address unconscious biases, make conscious choices, and take courageous action. She writes, “Regardless of your identity, you have the power, privilege, and opportunity to make a difference that benefits everyone. Rather than denying it or avoiding the inclusion conversation, participate; it’s vital to our collective success.” Managers who can successfully coach inclusion build not only better employees but also better organizations.

4. Prioritize progress

Positive coaching feels like development to the employee on the receiving end of a manager’s efforts. Negative coaching can feel like a lecture. When employees feel seen, heard, and supported when receiving feedback and discussing career development goals, they not only grow but also step up to support their managers. In this way, helping others actually helps yourself.

The authors of Feedback (and Other Dirty Words): Why We Fear It, How to Fix It write, “Positive feedback tells people to keep doing the good stuff, do it even more frequently, do it well, and hone their strengths and contributions. Positive feedback is inspirational; it elevates us and gives us the impetus to try harder. It creates focused energy, and focused energy drives improvement, growth, better outcomes, and greater impact.” Focusing on progress made and what lies ahead for the employees you coach instills direction and confidence. Developing healthy mechanisms for delivering feedback that identifies areas primed for growth can blossom out into the workplace culture and even build a movement that leads to all employees welcoming feedback instead of shying away from it. 

Like all aspects of managing, coaching doesn’t need to be daunting with the right skills and a commitment to improving those skills. Mintzberg writes in Simply Managing, “What could be more natural than to treat our organizations, not as mystical hierarchies of authority, but as communities of engagement, where every member is respected and so returns that respect?” When you approach coaching as a partnership, that respect becomes inevitable.


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