5 changes you can make to your management style that will have a big impact
When I joined Barclays, my manager, Vicki would never give me a straight answer.
Whenever I asked her a question, she would respond with, “Well, what do you think?” or, “What approach would you take to solving that problem?”.
It drove me nuts.
During the first few months that we worked together, it completely threw me off. I never knew how to answer her and I always felt really stupid.
I had a problem! I needed her help! She was my manager! Why wasn’t she solving my problem?
Her style was completely different from my old manager at UBS, who was much more directing and authoritative. After a while, I realized that Vicki was using coaching techniques to try to manage me. She wanted me to think through issues and try to come up with a couple of potential solutions on my own (or at least some options for how I would approach the situation), without her having to tell me.
This approach is intended to serve two purposes.
First, I would already be bought into the solution because I had originated it (at least partly) myself.
Second, I would excel more quickly in my role because I would harness my problem-solving skills and become my own trouble-shooter. I wouldn’t always need a boss to help me sort out my problems. I could learn to get halfway there on my own. Then I could use my boss as a sounding board to test out my theories and ideas and get a steer in the right direction, rather than simply following exactly what my boss wanted me to do.
This is a common example of “manager as coach.” Many organizations are introducing coaching techniques to their managers to improve employee engagement, encourage employees to drive their own development and to give employees more ownership over their work. In the excellent “Leader as Coach” article from HBR (2019), authors Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular state, “Increasingly, coaching is becoming integral to the fabric of a learning culture—a skill that good managers at all levels need to develop and deploy.”
That said, you might be confused about how to incorporate coaching principles into your own organization. Coaching is not mentoring. Coaching is not managing. Coaching is about asking, not telling. So how can you be both a manager and a coach at the same time? In fact, “manager as coach” presents a challenging dynamic. A successful coaching partnership relies on the two parties having an equal footing and commitment to the relationship. In a manager/employee relationship, there is always a power imbalance, even if you “take off your manager hat” and “put on your coaching hat.” That said, there is definitely some value in incorporating coaching techniques into your management style. Let’s look at 5 changes you can make to your management style that could have a big impact.
Coaching is not mentoring. Coaching is not managing. Coaching is about asking, not telling. So how can you be both a manager and a coach at the same time?
Ask open-ended questions All managers should be familiar with open-ended questions from recruiting and conducting interviews. A similar method is used in coaching. Open questions start with what, where, how, when, who (but not why since this can imply criticism). Open questions invite further discussion. You can follow them up with supplementary questions such as “What else?” or statements like “Tell me more.” Closed questions can be useful if you are trying to clarify information, but should be used sparingly. Examples of closed questions start with “Did you?, Can you…? Will you…, etc.”
Listen Active listening should not be a new topic to most managers. It includes paraphrasing, summarizing and reflecting back what you are hearing; clarifying when needed; and withholding judgement. But, when was the last time you truly listened to what your employees were saying – and what they were not saying? When you are entering into a coaching conversation with your employee, remove all other distractions. This includes the running to-do list in your mind, your inbox, your notifications on your phone and even checking your watch. Be fully present and listen for both verbal and non-verbal cues (eye contact, facial expressions, body language, etc).
Don’t speak. Then… wait for it… don’t speak. Hold the space for your employee. Wait. You’ve probably heard coaches use this phrase “hold the space” and wondered what it meant. It literally means that you should shut up and let your employee speak. Don’t correct them. Don’t argue with their point of view or try to get them to agree with you. Just listen. Nod. Take the occasional note. Ask some questions here and there. Your main objective should be to let your employee feel heard.
Check-in Coaching takes longer than managing. When you manage, you tell your employee what needs to get done and they do it. When you coach, you partner with your employee to explore the possible options and work together to settle on the one that is the most appropriate. This change in the relationship dynamic might take some getting used to. Check-in with your employee to see how (and if) you can help. Do they need your support to keep them accountable to what they are working on? Agree together on a check-in frequency that makes sense and then stick to it.
Be intentional Incorporating coaching techniques into your management style will feel uncomfortable at first. Your employee may look at you like you have three heads and wonder why you aren’t helping them with their problems. But stick with it. Consistency is the only thing that drives real change. Be intentional about how, when and where you will try these techniques. Write yourself a note before you go into a meeting or set reminders on your calendar. Tell your employees that you are trying a coaching approach and ask for their feedback and their help in keeping you accountable to this goal.
Does coaching take up more of your management time? In the short-term, yes… maybe. But in the long-term, you are facilitating your employee to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them grow and develop. At Barclays, Vicki pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I designed and managed projects to help improve the recruitment function, ultimately leading me to a promotion to lead the team a short time later. I wouldn’t have gotten there without Vicki.
In the long-run, your employees will be empowered, and become more self-sufficient and capable, allowing you to give them bigger projects that free up more of your time. Your peers will notice how well your team functions and how you’ve built a succession pipeline for your role. And all of that is possible by trying to implement these fives changes to your management style that could have a big impact. Give them a try today.
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Renee Conklin is a Coach and HR Consultant who coaches individuals to career success and consults businesses on people-focused solutions. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIn.
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