Many organizations invest time and effort to train managers in not just managing but how to coach their direct reports. They do so with the expectation that, if given the tools, (coaching models and techniques) managers will effectively use and implement them resulting in stronger teams and, subsequently, more successful units, divisions and companies.
However, many companies become frustrated because – while they’ve done all the right things to position their managers for success – success is not achieved. How can this be? Because a lot of those trained managers don’t coach. Or won’t coach. Why?
It’s Outside the Comfort Zone
Most managers are quite comfortable providing guidance on how to perform the technical aspects of a job better, or talking about process and results. Conversely, many managers are apprehensive when broaching broader and, potentially more candid, conversations regarding someone else’s developmental challenges and goals.
It’s when managers get into the “soft stuff” – giving staff feedback on setting realistic career goals or making suggestions on how to improve interpersonal impact – that’s where the difficulties arise.
They “Don’t Have Time”
Not “having time” is a convenient excuse bolstered by the belief that managers are too busy with “real work.”
However, when you get into it, what is that manager who is “too busy” spending his/her time actually doing? General speaking, studies indicate that between 48% and 60% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with people (direct reports and peers) – their problems, questions, issues, putting out fires, etc.
Managers by training and demand are problem-solvers – of course. However, are they solving problems or working a level down? In our experience it’s both. Because most managers know the technical answers (based on experience and previous positions within an organization) they naturally feel compelled to provide them when asked. Which means they can spend a lot of their time doing the thinking for others; and in so doing, they make it easy for directs to keep bringing their monkeys back to get them fed (read: reduced performance and accountability).
Fear of the Reaction – “Engagement Shy or Conflict Averse”
Coaching is often driven out of a need to deal with poor execution. So, often, it’s seen or experienced as punitive – an interaction where management focuses on what’s wrong and how to fix it. Therefore, in both the coach’s and the direct report’s mind, the beginning of any coaching engagement starts with negative information.
“My experience has been, If I tell them anything negative about themselves, they’ll get angry.”
Managers who say this may feel it’s more important that people like them. They don’t want conflict and tend to avoid it wherever possible. In our experience, managers greatly overestimate how thin-skinned their staff really are. Most people can take constructive feedback, as long as it is presented in a nonjudgmental way that’s focused on solution building.
“I find it so frustrating when they don’t agree with my assessment.”
As much as management may think their staff can’t handle feedback, some managers have trouble taking their ego out of the conversation. They confuse their point of view with a fact, and become angry when they give staff feedback that is rejected. They can feel cornered when they get push-back which can sometimes result in just pulling rank and no conversation.
Deep Water and Shallow Tool Box
Coaching is not managing performance. Coaching is about development, change and growth. Some coaching models feel too open or inclusive and broad, that managers are afraid that once they start the conversation they’ll get out of their depth and will be ill-equipped to handle the situation. They worry that these coaching conversations will lead to information for which they are unclear how to handle or for which they can’t problem solve, identify viable solutions for, or that they just don’t want to know. For many, the fear that their toolbox is just too meager leaves them thinking they’ll be caught out and so stops many mangers from starting the conversation at all.
“I’m not a therapist.” Or, “messing around in someone’s head” to try to unearth information about desires and interests. This is one of the most common objections managers have to discussing career aspirations, performance challenges and real-world goals.
The Solution – Master the Performance Conversation First
Organizations should begin with the low hanging fruit – the simplest, easiest wins for managers. Why? Because quick wins build confidence. And with more confidence there’s inevitably more trying to win (read: application of desired behavior.)
The “low hanging fruit” for managers who are being asked to coach is to give them practical understanding of the difference between managing performance and coaching for development. Mastery of performance conversations is the gateway to effective coaching. If managers are not having good performance conversations, they’re never going to have good coaching conversations. When managers become excellent at managing performance, at driving critical thinking and holding direct reports accountable, they discover that their conversations change and they are no longer spending their time working a level down. Mastering performance management skills is what creates the time necessary to have the coaching conversations that are not currently taking place. But until a manager gets a clear understanding of how to execute on the former, his/her ability to create time for coaching is limited at best. Not only that, a well-executed performance conversation effectively sets the agenda for what should be discussed in a coaching conversation.
The solution is to coach every manager on performance conversations. Why? Because it’s very difficult for a manager to create an experience for an employee when they may have never had the experience themselves. When you’ve been coached, it’s 100 times easier to actually coach someone else.
Mastering of the performance conversation provides a much narrower focus to achieve performance change. Achieving that level of change provides the stair step allowing for broader long-term change as well as specific short-term change that can be achieved by coaching. Give managers confidence in performance management first. Then give them the coaching tool set and expectation to develop employees – or re-implement and reinforce the one you’ve already bought.
This article was originally published in the November–December 1974 issue of HBR and has been one of the publication’s two best-selling reprints ever.For its reissue as a Classic, the Harvard Business Review asked Stephen R. Covey to provide a commentary.
Why is it that managers are typically running out of time while their subordinates are typically running out of work?
The Ocean of Coaching