Articles > Why managers don't coach

Why managers don't coach
Globe & Mail, September 16, 2005

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

For 15 years, I've heard the same lament from human resource leaders: "We spent a fortune training our managers to coach their staff, and they know how important it is. Yet, staff tell us their managers don't give them helpful feedback or advice on how to develop themselves."

Most managers are comfortable providing guidance on how to perform the technical aspects of a job better, or talking about the company vision.

It's when they get into the soft stuff -- giving staff feedback on how realistic their career goals are, or making suggestions on how to improve interpersonal impact -- that they have difficulty.

But coaching is one of the most important roles of a manager, especially for Generation X and Y workers, who place such support at the top of their career wish lists. And they need more than previous generations because they are not receiving the kind of development their predecessors enjoyed.

There are many obvious reasons why managers don't do this kind of "soft" work. They don't have the time, have too many people reporting to them to know them intimately enough, may have received inadequate training and get no direct rewards for it.

But lately, I've begun to think that all this is secondary. The real reason managers avoid coaching has nothing to do with skills or time: It's because they are uncomfortable with the role. Here is some of the reasoning managers use to justify their discomfort with coaching -- and what's wrong with it.

"People should know they're doing something good. They don't need my praise."

Managers who say this often never received good coaching themselves. They may also feel that a desire for positive feedback equates to neediness. While some people have stronger needs for positive feedback, everyone is motivated by a compliment. It also provides reinforcement for what people ought to do more of.

"If I tell them anything negative about themselves, they'll get angry."

Managers who say this want people to like them. They don't like conflict and avoid it wherever possible. In my experience, managers greatly overestimate how thin-skinned their staff are. Most people can take reasonable criticism, as long as it is presented in a helpful way that offers the possibility of fixing the problem.

Couch negative feedback in positive terms. For example, rather than saying, "Here's what you did wrong . . ." say, "Next time, you may want to try . . ."

Rather than invoking a personality flaw --"you're too impatient" -- show awareness that this is behaviour that can be changed.

"I'm not a therapist."

Male managers are more likely to worry to about this, feeling uncomfortable, as one said, "mucking about in someone's head" to try to unearth information about desires and interests. This is one of the most common objections they have to discussing career aspirations.

The key here is to provide structure to your discussion.

Ask staff to do their homework before they talk with you. Give them tools to enable them to identify their interests, skills and values. Put the onus on them to identify what they want and need from you.

It is far easier and more productive to respond to a comment like "I'm interested in improving my communication skills. I'd like to take a course in . . ." than "I'm not really sure what I want to do or what I'm good at. What do you think?"

In this way, you can build on what they know about themselves, provide input on how realistic their desires are, and how they can get the development they want.

"It's frustrating when they don't agree with my assessment."

Some managers confuse their point of view with a fact, and become angry when they give staff feedback that is rejected.

If there is a performance issue under discussion, you have the right to expect staff to change their behaviour.

But if you and your employees don't see eye to eye on their career aspirations, you have to accept that.

Staff should listen to you, but they don't always have to agree with you. You are offering an informed point of view, not the absolute truth.

"I'm just not that interested in others' development."

Some managers find developing their people very rewarding, while others are completely uninterested.

It is difficult to cultivate an interest in something that doesn't engage you. But supporting staff in their development is the cornerstone of coaching.

Ask yourself: "Do I really want to be in this role?" If the answer is "yes," keep on reminding yourself that it is part of your job and you need to act like you care."

You may discover that you actually do care when you have reaped the emotional rewards of contributing to someone else's development.

"If I set myself up as an authority figure, I'll no longer be part of the group."

Team-loving, extroverted managers often feel uncomfortable putting themselves in a position of authority over employees they consider friends, thinking it puts them outside the group.

Managing the boundary between personal and professional lives is one of the toughest parts of a manager's job, especially if there are warm collegial relationships. It is the manager's role, however, to provide feedback -- and your employees expect it.

Would you rather be seen as a great guy or as someone staff respect and trust? Be matter-of-fact. Avoid judgmental language. Provide examples to demonstrate your point.

"My staff will become too dependent on me. I'll be sucked dry emotionally."

Managers who believe this are often more introverted, reserved and shy. They worry about creating overwhelming and never-ending demands for their time.

Just because you provide guidance doesn't mean staff will be living out of your pocket from now on. It is up to you to set boundaries about reasonable expectations or subjects for discussion. You may also want to consider whether the core of your discomfort is a fear of intimacy.

The rewards of supporting another person's development are enormous. Giving someone a leg up not only contributes to your bottom line but also to their future success.