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We’re all coaches now, aren’t we?


William Winstone provides some tips on how to introduce coaching skills into your management style.

Like it or not, coaching’s an increasingly important aspect of management. But coaching as a line manager is very different from bringing in an external coach – not least because people won’t be expecting you to sit them down and start asking how they feel about things. Bring the right techniques and the right expectations, though, and you’ll reap the benefits.
Coaching has come to business from sport, and that’s because of the results it’s brought: medals, goals and faster times. Compared to 15 or 20 years ago, when sportspeople were ignorant of the benefits, sport psychology is now de rigueur for everything from cricket to curling.
Understandably, business wants part of the action too, but it can mean changing people’s management style to bring in more coaching elements, which can be a tricky balance to strike...

Finding the balance

Leadership is a spectrum, with the dictatorial at one end and the consultative at the other. The best managers find a position on the spectrum that they’re comfortable with, and which suits their organisation, and adapt it to the circumstances.

A lot of leaders automatically gravitate towards the dictatorial end of that spectrum and struggle to change their style to become more consultative. If you’re going to bring coaching into your work – and you definitely should – it’s a skill you’ll need to develop.

Creating the motivation

One of the most powerful drivers that underpins coaching is called ‘intrinsic motivation theory’. To sum it up fairly simply, people will get more fired up about things that:
  • They can control
  • They’re competent to do
  • Meet their social needs
If working relationships meet these three points, people really engage and things suddenly get a lot easier. The challenge is to turn this theory into practice – these four tactics will help:

1.    Start asking questions

Asking questions instead of answering them can be a powerful technique, but you need to ask the right question, to the right person, at the right time.

For managers, though, it can be hard to move from answering questions towards coaching. Do it too abruptly and people will feel you’re just countering their questions with more questions. Infuriating!

Intrinsic motivation theory says people respond better when they’re in control. How could that work? It might be as simple as: “I’d like to change tack here… sometimes I find we make real leaps forward when I ask questions instead of giving you my answers. Would you be happy to give that a go?” It lets them decline, but if they say yes – and they always do - you know they’re fully involved.

2.    Listen properly – but don’t be a pushover

There’s a fine line between treating people with empathy and being a pushover. Leaders aren’t social workers! So while you’re not there to counsel people, you’ve got to give them proper attention, even when you’re busy – they don’t care how many voicemails, texts and emails you’ve got unread or how many other meetings you’ve got today. All they want is for you to listen actively and intently, whether or not you agree. Motivation theory describes this as supporting their competency: if you find the time to use a coaching approach, you’re showing that you trust your report’s own capability and that you’re open to their input and direction.

3.    Stop hugging trees

When the chips are down, you need a clear sense of what you want and where you want to go. Strong teams have a clear sense of direction and leaders who can look further over the horizon than their staff.
In uncertain times, senior management teams have to agree on a direction quickly ... yet they must remain open to other views.
There’s a social need here, and that’s for people to feel included during this process. So concentrate on questions that explore their motivation and intentions, rather than making assumptions that lead to distrust. “I want to understand your main priority here”, “What will happen if we don’t follow this course of action?” and “What will be the impact on the staff?”  
Sometimes there can be benefits from a more competitive dialogue, but stay away when it becomes entrenched rather than passionate. Really exploring people’s disagreements and positions is the best way for senior teams to settle on a firm course. Disagreements that are hidden will come back to bite you.

4.    Get a coach in?

Sometimes an external coach can add value to a business, despite their cost. On the other hand, sometimes the cost is more than the benefit.
A fresh pair of eyes should challenge those collective organisational blind spots and ask the questions you’ve stopped asking yourselves. The best external coaches will be skilled at working with managers and their teams to really change the productivity of relationships. And by talking to key colleagues around the manager, the external coach can join up the organisational priorities with the individual manager’s internal motivation and goals.
Traditional management approaches have overplayed the organisation’s goals at the expense of the individual. Developing your skills as a managerial coach allows you to develop individuals and teams that are really on the same page, in a direction in which all of you know you are travelling. 
Whatever style you’re taking, the quality of listening you bring to any conversation will have a massive impact. Whether you’re taking a more hierarchical approach or more of a coaching role, if you’re listening well enough then the whole process becomes a lot clearer and more effective.
William Winstone is a director of  Performance 1, a consultancy that brings insights from Olympic sport to helping business leaders ‘run a better race’, through executive and team coaching.

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