learning coaching skillsA study published in the Harvard Business Review by Leadership professor Julia Milner and management consultant Trenton Milner has revealed that most executives don’t really know what coaching is.

It’s worth looking at what experts generally define as coaching. These descriptions from Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington’s book The Complete Guide To Coaching At Work are in line with the widely agreed definition:

“Coaching is a conversation… in a productive, results-oriented context”

“Coaching is about learning… and yet the coach is not a teacher”

“Coaching is more about asking the right questions than providing answers”

In this light, the results of the research are revealing.

A group of executives was asked to coach another person around time management. The five-minute coaching conversations were videoed and then evaluated by both other participants and coaching experts.

The experts noticed that what the executives were doing, on the whole, was telling people what to do and offering advice, rather than genuine coaching.

What’s more, the executive peer group evaluated this advice-giving (described by the study authors as ‘micromanaging-as-coaching’) as good practice.

Why is giving advice like this a bad idea? Three reasons immediately spring to mind:

  1. All the manager-as-coach knows of the problem is what the coachee has told them, which may not be the full story. So the advice they give may not be fitted to real problem.
  2. Even if the manager-as-coach has understood the problem fully and correctly, the advice they give is what they would do in that situation. The employee probably has a different personality and behavioural style, so what works for you may not work for them.
  3. Even if the advice you give is exactly right for the problem and for the person, by giving it to them on a plate you are robbing them of an opportunity to develop their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Additionally, the ‘coachee’ will most likely feel micro-managed, not listened to, and disempowered, especially if they had some ideas of their own for solving the problem and were just looking for a green light.

The belief that ‘coaching’ means ‘giving advice’ is very much in line with what I have found when teaching coaching skills to executives, in the UK and around the world.

When I ask a group of managers if coaching is apart of their role, invariably they say yes. Before a coaching exercise I brief them that we are practising ‘non-directive’ coaching (asking the right questions rather than providing answers) rather than advising or telling the person what to do (sometimes known as ‘directive’ coaching).

After the exercise I will usually ask “Who felt tempted to give advice?” and most of the hands in the room go up. When I follow up with “But you resisted that temptation, right?” there are a lot of sheepish faces.

Why do managers find it so hard to resist giving advice, even when they have been made aware of the downsides? Two obvious drivers spring to mind, one internal, the other external.

The internal driver is the natural human desire to help another person out. If your team member appears to be floundering, with no idea what to do next, most people would feel like giving advice, particularly if you can see an obvious answer that they apparently cannot.

The external driver (which has probably been internalised in most executives) is the desire to get things done and not to waste time. If you can see an ‘obvious’ answer, it’s quicker in the short term to give your team member the solution, rather than wait for them to work it out.

The temptation, then, when your team members come to you with problems is to solve the problem for them, by giving them advice or orders about what to do.

Unfortunately, when you do this, you are training your team members through behavioural reinforcement, just like you would train a dog, to come back to you the next time they have a problem.

Before you know it, there will be a queue of advice-seeking subordinates outside your office door, and you will be so busy solving their problems that you don’t have any time left for your own work. Your short-term time saver in the long term becomes a time drain.

Instead, what if you take a coaching approach and ask them questions like:

“What could you do to solve this?”

“What have you thought of already?”

“How have you (or others) solved similar problems in the past?”

With these questions you are getting them to exercise their own problem solving and decision making abilities, and going some way towards fulfilling that part of the leader’s role that involves growing new leaders.

Pretty soon, they will not come to you with a problem without having thought about ways to solve it themselves. And if you allow them to make the occasional mistake when using their initiative, without chewing them out over it, then they will start applying their solutions in practice, and solving most problems without pestering having to come to you at all.

Some good news emerging from the Milners’ study is that after some formal training in coaching, the skills of the managers (as evaluated by the coaching experts) improved, and post-course peer evaluations of their pre-course coaching sessions indicated that participants could now tell the difference between giving advice and true coaching.

As Julia Milner says, “even a short course targeted at the right skills can markedly improve managers’ coaching skills.”

What Executives Get Wrong About Coaching

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