To get managers thinking about the nature of coaching, and specifically how to do it better in the context of their company, we present them with a matrix. One axis shows the information, advice, or expertise that a coach puts in to the relationship with the person being coached; the other shows the motivational energy that a coach pulls out by unlocking that person’s own insights and solutions.

By using these axes 4 different styles of coaching can be discerned.

Quadrant 1 is directive coaching, which takes place primarily through “telling.” Mentoring falls into this category. Everybody knows what to expect here: A manager with years of accumulated knowledge willingly shares it with a junior team member, and that person listens carefully, hoping to absorb as much knowledge as possible. This approach has a lot to recommend it, but it has some downsides too. Because it consists of stating what to do and how to do it, it unleashes little energy in the person being coached; indeed, it may even depress her energy level and motivation. It also assumes that the boss knows things that the recipient of the coaching does not—not always a safe assumption in a complex and constantly changing work environment. Additionally, because it allows leaders to continue doing what they have always excelled at (solving other people’s problems), it does not build organizational capacity well.

That said, coaching is not always the answer. There may be times when all team members are productively getting on with their work, and the right approach to managing them is to leave them alone. This approach, which we call laissez-faire, appears in quadrant 2.

Quadrant 3 is nondirective coaching, which is built on listening, questioning, and withholding judgment. Managers here work to draw wisdom, insight, and creativity out of the people they’re coaching, with the goal of helping them learn to resolve problems and cope with challenging situations on their own. It’s an approach that can be highly energizing for those being coached, but it doesn’t come naturally to most managers, who tend to be more comfortable in “tell” mode.

In quadrant 4 is situational coaching, which represents the sweet spot in our framework. All managers in a learning organization should aspire to become expert at situational coaching—which, as its name suggests, involves striking a fine balance between directive and nondirective styles according to the specific needs of the moment. From our work with experienced executives, we’ve concluded that managers should first practice nondirective coaching a lot on its own, until it becomes almost second nature, and only then start to balance that newly strengthened ability with periods of helpful directive coaching.