For leaders who are accustomed to tackling performance problems by telling people what to do, a coaching approach often feels too “soft.” What’s more, it can make them psychologically uncomfortable, because it deprives them of their most familiar management tool: asserting their authority. So they resist coaching—and left to their own devices, they may not even give it a try. “I’m too busy,” they’ll say, or “This isn’t the best use of my time,” or “The people I’m saddled with aren’t coachable.” In Daniel Goleman’s classic study of leadership styles, leaders ranked coaching as their least-favorite style, saying they simply didn’t have time for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.
Even if many managers are unenthusiastic about coaching, most think they’re pretty good at it. But a lot of them are not. In one study, 3,761 executives assessed their own coaching skills, and then their assessments were compared with those of people who worked with them. The results didn’t align well. Twenty-four percent of the executives significantly overestimated their abilities, rating themselves as above average while their colleagues ranked them in the bottom third of the group. That’s a telling mismatch. “If you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t,” the authors of the study wrote, “this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”
Coaching can be hard for even the most competent and well-meaning of managers. One of us teaches a class to executives that makes this clear year after year. The executives are given a case study and asked to play the role of a manager who must decide whether to fire or coach a direct report who is not performing up to par. The employee has made obvious errors of judgment, but the manager has contributed significantly to the problem by having alternately ignored and/or micromanaged him.
When presented with this scenario, nine out of 10 executives decide they want to help their direct report do better. But when they’re asked to role-play a coaching conversation with him, they demonstrate much room for improvement. They know what they’re supposed to do: “ask and listen,” not “tell and sell.” But that doesn’t come naturally, because deep down they’ve already made up their minds about the right way forward, usually before they even begin talking to the employee. So their efforts to coach typically consist of just trying to get agreement on what they’ve already decided. That’s not real coaching—and not surprisingly, it doesn’t play out well.
However, with the right tools and support, almost anybody can become a better coach.
Here’s roughly how these conversations unfold. The executives begin with an open-ended question, such as “How do you think things are going?” This invariably elicits an answer very different from what they expected. So they reformulate the question, but this, too, fails to evoke the desired response. With some frustration, they start asking leading questions, such as “Don’t you think your personal style would be a better fit in a different role?” This makes the direct report defensive, and he becomes even less likely to give the hoped-for answer. Eventually, feeling that the conversation is going nowhere, the executives switch into “tell” mode to get their conclusion across. At the end of the exercise, no one has learned anything about the situation or themselves.
Sound familiar? This kind of “coaching” is all too common, and it holds companies back in their attempts to become learning organizations. The good news, though, is that with the right tools and support, a sound method, and lots of practice and feedback, almost anybody can become a better coach.