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Ten or fifteen years ago the idea of using “coaching” in organisations was still seen as a bit faddy: mostly for floaty, ‘justifying-my-existence” HR types.

The reality in 2017 is very different.


Thanks to the recent work of people like Dan Pink we’re learning how in the knowledge economy, performance is driven by different factors than simple carrot and stick (PS. His TED Talk on “The Puzzle of Motivation” is well worth 18 mins of your life).

Most people aren’t making widgets or milking cows any more. Hence talk of “the knowledge arena”: a catchall term for the dominant part of our modern economies, where people process information for a living.

The data tells us that in these settings – where problems are ambiguous and solutions are unknown – the old methods of simply telling people what to do and then verbally smacking them if they don’t come up with the goods isn’t just mean, it doesn’t actually work!

Which is interesting enough. However, when trying to be less dictatorial managers often fall into an equal but opposite trap of giving folk complete, unbridled space to figure it out by themselves. Often, this simply paralyses team members through choice overwhelm, and ultimately everyone ends up frustrated with time and money wasted everywhere.

“When trying to be less dictatorial managers often fall into an equal but opposite trap of giving folk complete, unbridled space to figure it out by themselves.”

So what’s a manager to do?

Well, in the middle of that spectrum sits coaching, now seen as one of the most powerful means of enabling performance in a workplace where people make things with their minds.

As a qualified coach, experienced project manager and former Head of L&D at one of the North’s leading web agencies, we asked Matt Stephens – founder of “Front of the Herd” – to give us his take.

Here are 3 simple steps any manager can begin putting in action right now to progress their team towards more of a coaching culture.

1. Ask, ask, ask

Asking rather than telling is a great way to move towards coaching.

The next time you’re discussing a task with someone, ask them open questions on how they’re going to approach it (rather than instructing them how to do it). Ask them how they think it’ll work best to report back on progress (rather than mandating a checkback routine), and so on.

When it comes to decision making if someone comes to you to make a call, try helping them build their decision making muscle by turning it back on them. For example, questions like “What options do you think would work?” or “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” can be really powerful.

2. Set people up for success

Once you’ve heard someone’s ideas, if you’re taking a coaching approach you ought to allow them to run with them unless there’s a really good reason not to.

Of course, be sensible and manage risk. However, the key thing here is not to demand that they do what you would have done. Rather, the point is to build their confidence in making decisions and following them through.

One of the most oft-given pieces of advice from management guru Dale Carnegie was “Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to”. Look for opportunities to set someone up for success by demonstrating real belief in them!

3. Follow up

A coaching approach involves a blend of support and challenge. The challenge is already underway – they’ve stepped up and are running with their plan/decision. So now your job is to support them through the execution.

As and when people hit trouble and they need to rethink their approach or decisions, then allow them to do that safely and recover from setbacks. Encourage the process by continuing to ask how they want to progress, brainstorm options together and supporting them through continued decision making and course correction.

If you are sure that a suggested action would really be a problem and can’t be allowed, then of course it’s tempting to switch back to a mentoring or telling model. But rather than simply shut it down and crush your team members confidence, far better is to resist and instead simply say something like…

“OK, let’s talk that through. Tell me what you’re thinking, the problems you can see and how you’d avoid or solve them.”

Hopefully either they’ll realise the inherent problem, or you will see they really do know how to make the idea a success!

And on that point – when things work out and your team succeeds, it can make the world of difference when a boss takes the time to offer a bit of praise, recognition or encouragement.

To turn a phrase on its head, try to “catch someone doing something right”!

And finally…

Remember that although this all sounds easy in principle, it’s a really challenging approach to switch to more of a coaching style of management. It does take longer and involve more initial effort when compared to simply telling someone what to do or jumping in and micromanaging someone in how to do it.

Focus on the end game though – the more you do this with your team, the more they will start to take the initiative and build confidence, with increasingly less involvement and demand on your time. And ultimately Dan Pink is right – folk perform better in the knowledge economy. And performance is what it’s all about right?!”

Big thanks to Matt for guest blogging for us. We cover topics like helping your team thrive and more on Invent – Form’s six-month growth programme crafted specifically for leaders in the UK’s creative and digital sector.