How Managers Can Learn to Coach Employees

Front-line managers are the heroes of getting day-to-day work completed on time and on budget, often through directing and advising others. In managing their teams they answer questions, clarify misunderstandings, make suggestions and recommendations, and yes, sometimes they give direct orders. While effective in helping employees accomplish today’s to-do lists, do these behaviors help employees become more self-aware? More confident in their decision-making? Better critical thinkers?

By definition, coaching focuses not on advising but on listening, on experiencing empathy, on asking questions that invite the person being coached (the coachee) to exercise critical thinking or business judgement skills, and most importantly, on resisting the urge to answer their own questions. The manager-as-coach must be willing to suspend urgency and instead wait for the coachee to respond. Which can sometimes take days.

This need for patience can undermine learning to be a coaching manager. First, employees often appreciate a ready answer from their manager so that they can complete their tasks. Too many “what do you think we should do?” replies can be frustrating. As a result the manager-as-director behavior is reinforced. Second, managers by nature want to be helpful. It may seem cruel to hold back on offering up a solution or next step (which as an experienced manager you may already have several of) while your employee struggles to come up with one on their own.

Fortunately, managers can learn to become coaching managers through a combination of structured training and practice. For a deeper dive into what effective training might look like, there’s an excellent Harvard Business Review article, available here.