What does it mean to coach as a line manager?

By Margaret Walsh FCIPD, managing director at Margaret Walsh Consulting

So much is expected of line managers, particularly in these turbulent pandemic times as businesses have to adapt quickly and with great agility to ever changing economic and social constraints. Many employees can feel overwhelmed by the rapid and radical changes in their lives, and if they are working remotely it can be challenging for managers to assume their responsibility as leaders to support, motivate and help team members maintain their performance. Informal, everyday opportunities to strengthen working relationships are reduced, so managers need to be creative about how to encourage effective collaboration to enable employees to coalesce around a clear a sense of purpose.

Coaching can be an extremely effective tool in promoting the adaptability and resilience of their team, and line managers taking the role of coach is not a new idea. Working remotely from teams may mean that activities like coaching slide, yet this is exactly the time when these coaching conversations are most important: to maximise employee wellbeing and engagement.

To enable coaching conversations, line managers need to look at where they spend their time and consider ‘protected space’ for coaching conversations, yet many are expected to simply absorb the role of coach into their jobs with limited training or guidance. So, what does it even mean to coach as a line manager, and how can we sharpen the coaching skill set of managers? 

  1. Understand the role of coach as a line manager

Getting results through others is at the heart of effective management, and coaching is one of the tools to facilitate this. However, many line managers don’t understand what coaching really means. Sir John Whitmore, author of ‘Coaching for Performance’, defined coaching as ‘unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance.  It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them’.  Often managers who think and believe they are coaching are either teaching (sharing expertise) consulting (giving advice) or directing (telling people what to do) to get quickly to providing a solution e.g. “Do it like this” or ‘Why don’t you do this?’ This “short cut” approach is sometimes necessary when an urgent decision is required or the team member is too inexperienced to make their own decision, but if managers only ever use this directive style, it keeps team members dependent on them and can lead to de-motivation and lack of engagement, as team members are not encouraged to draw on their own resources and think for themselves. This can lead to them feeling excluded and undervalued.

  1. The core skills of a coach

Tough situations and difficult conversations become easier to navigate when coaching skills are learned and practiced regularly. Throughout literature on coaching and the practices of effective coaches, the following core skills come through:

Listening to gain insight, show empathy and build rapport. To listen actively, requires a greater focus and a sensitive awareness of how the coach’s non-verbal communication can impact the coachee (and vice-versa).   It is important for coaches to demonstrate their understanding of the coachee’s thinking by, for example, clarifying, paraphrasing, and reflecting, to build an emotional connection with a fellow human being, thus developing trust. Sometimes it is important to simply create a ‘space’ for the coachee to think and reflect, particularly when there are feelings of overload.

Questioning in ways that encourage the coachee to arrive at their own solution and to promote a problem-solving approach to issues.  The most effective style involves asking open questions to expand perspective, before the coachee arrives at a resolution.

Giving feedback and point out strengths.  Everyone needs to know how and why they are useful and valued.  Additionally, coaching someone through a mistake can provide long-lasting and powerful insights and enables people to learn from their errors. It helps create a climate in which mistakes are seen as part of the learning and development process and to create a learning mindset in team members.

Providing a conversation structure and thus facilitate goal setting.  This often involves generating movement towards the common goals that the business requires.  A line manager needs to demonstrate that they respect and have confidence in the coachee to do their job and make the connections to show how they contribute to the wider business goals.

  1. Self-awareness

Before a coach starts to coach they need to understand themself to avoid  ‘getting in your own way’, as Tim Gallway author of ‘The Inner Game’ describes.  This is why most coaching courses start with a self-awareness module. Coaches react to stressful situations and this shows up in their behaviour, which is important for a line manager who coaches to recognise.  For example, there may be a strong drive to quickly find solutions to problems or to help others who are struggling.  However, this can be counter-productive to helping an employee to develop in their role.  There are times, as a coach, when high levels of emotional intelligence are required to notice an auto-pilot response in oneself to an issue and to self-regulate, to interrupt the ‘programmed/habitual’ response.  

As a line manager in a fast-changing world, should become comfortable with NOT having all the answers and to empower employees to participate in the search for solutions to new and unexpected problems.  Knowing there are often societal and organisational expectations or pressures on ‘having answers’ or ‘being right’, underlines the importance of working through these dynamics to increase self-awareness and let go of an outdated need to control and supervise.  Line managers need to develop skills to reflect our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

A line manager who coaches can benefit from receiving effective coaching themselves, perhaps by going through 1:1 coaching.  Understanding one’s own style and how it impacts others is helpful insight.  Also, by experiencing coaching directly and knowing what works well, and not so well, enables the transfer of learning into the line manager’s coaching skillset.    

  1. Understanding the dynamics present in the coaching relationship

Relationship building is key for effective coaching, beginning with respect and trust of the coachee, and builds through core coaching skills, like effective listening.  It takes attention to build this trust and a genuine curiosity to be able to develop a careful ‘reading’ of the coachee and respond accordingly.  A self-aware coach knows how to flex their style to get the most from the employee. Jonathan Passmore, author of ‘Leadership Coaching: Working with Leaders to Develop Elite Performance’ reminds us that ‘coaching is about changes taking place within the person being coached’ and that ‘nothing can be imposed without the explicit or implied permission of the coachee’.  Neuroscience informs us that most of our behaviour comes from our unconscious thinking, often shaped by our past.  Understanding this ‘beneath the surface’ processing of information and helping to surface it into conscious awareness makes employees more insightful and adaptable. 

  1. Continuous Learning in Practice

A great deal can happen in a dynamic coaching relationship, and so it is important that a line manager takes the opportunity to reflect on their own coaching performance. Important questions to consider include:

  • What is working well? 
  • What could be better?
  • How can I develop myself as a coach?

Coaching is a core skill in the 21st century and needs to be learned and honed over time. Line managers who coach should consider how they measure up against this skill set, how best to fill any gaps in both knowledge and skills and, finally, how to practice the skills and gain valuable feedback (perhaps through feedback from the coachee, peer coaching and supervision).   

The benefits of coaching go beyond the one-to-one interaction of a coaching relationship to provide organisational benefits like a wider progressive coaching culture. This, in turn, provides the right environment to create a sense of belonging, improve performance, team cohesion, conflict resolution and motivation. With greater employee engagement, there is often more creativity, and this can improve ‘hard’ measures, like profitability.  

In these turbulent times, every employee needs to be reassured that they - and the work they do - is valued.  Effective coaches give their employees the skills to develop themselves. With higher levels of stress reported by many employees, a different style of leadership and greater humanity is needed in the workplace.  A line manager who can balance the needs of the coachee with the business goals is likely to build a much more connected, productive, cohesive and high performing team. 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.