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Coaching by Line Managers: Is It Really Coaching?

12 August 2014

A little while ago, I attempted to bring to light one challenge of Agile coaching that is specific to coaches who are fully employed by organizations (as opposed to being consultants). The discussion is posted here and it covers the dilemma of impartiality that some coaches face as they get drafted in activities and processes that are not typical or, better to say, not appropriate for coaches.

I feel that this discussion should effectively be considered a predecessor to the one mentioned above, as it helps with painting a better picture around why many large organizations perceive the coaching role/profession and coaching itself in ways that are different from the notion held by a professional coach. By reading this post, the reader can prime himself with an understanding of why situations such as the one described in the article referenced above can arise.

Not too long ago, I came across the online coaching tutorial offered by one of the learning and performance support resources for the company where I served as a coach. The materials were pretty thorough and well structured. At the beginning, there was a clear delineation made between "coaching" and "mentoring," as well as the acknowledgment that these two terms are frequently confused by companies today. The materials of the tutorial also well covered such important aspects of coaching as:
  • Coaching steps -- preparing (by observing), setting up (by discussing with coachee), coaching, retrospection on coaching
  • Coaching types -- "coaching by inquiring" versus "coaching by advocacy"
  • Recognizing coaching opportunities and developing coaching strategies
The tutorial also included video quotes of some leading consultants from the resource company. The recordings were done very professionally and there was no doubt in my mind that the consultants had a huge amount of experience as coaches and mentors, consulting with multiple clients.

But as I progressed through the tutorial, something did not feel right. It did not feel as though the presented information swiftly fitted into my definition of Agile coaching. I decided to pause on the tutorial and gain better understanding of what the company specialized in. More specifically, I wanted to understand the target audience for the tutorial. After a bit of research, I discovered that the tutorial was specifically designed for managers. Specifically, the goal of the tutorial was to assist line managers in developing coaching skills, so that they could help their subordinates improve performance and correct behavior.

Luckily, I was not too far into the tutorial, so I decided to rewind and start from the beginning, now with better understanding that this information was specifically meant for line managers. As I replayed the entire session, part by part, I understood why there was so much emphasis on directive coaching (where a coach takes more of a directive consulting position, acts more assertively, and advises a client in a stronger voice).

Let me pause here and refer the reader to this web page: Systems for Coaching Cultures. Figure 1 on this page nicely summarizes how a coach's engagement style depends on the level of the coachee's motivation. As the diagram shows, a coachee with low competency and low motivation requires more directive coaching.

Without getting too much into a discussion about motivation (my other post on this topic is here), it can be derived from the tutorial that coaching by direct managers ("managerial coaching") has the goal of dealing with poorly motivated employees-coachees.

Or could there be another theory, that being coached by direct managers demotivates would-be motivated individuals? Speculation, you say? Maybe. But let's quickly recap a couple of guidelines for better coach-coachee relationships:
  • A coach's interaction with a coachee has a time horizon (at least, a tentative end date is defined up front).
  • A coach establishes success measurements (with incremental assessment) of his coaching; a coach is ready to disengage if there is clear lack of progress or noticeable resistance on a coachee's part.
  • A coach has practical hands-on expertise in the subject matter that he coaches on; book theory alone is rarely enough.
  • A coach does not have an authoritative, empowered role within the organization that automatically makes his or her even very soft suggestions/recommendations perceived as executive "must do's."
  • A coach does not make a direct impact on employment/career progression/compensation.
  • A coachee genuinely acknowledges that there is a gap in his/her knowledge and it requires coaching: A coachee is not in denial and is not trying to humor his coach by saying "Yes, I need your help." Important: The definition of a "coaching opportunity" may be different for a coach than for a coachee, and it is a coachee's need/desire to be coached that should prevail. Although secondary, broader positive effects are always desirable (on other team members, on other parts of organization), it is the primary benefit to a coachee that should be a coach's main focus and goal (individual coaching implies that a coachee is a "client").
  • A coachee must have assurance of a coach's impartiality and ability to treat any shared information with confidence, free of subjective judgment. Specifically, information shared by a coachee about his problems/issues with coworkers and/or management should not be used by a coach in a way that could be harmful to a coachee.
Please allow me to pause for a moment again: Can these guidelines be easily followed by a coach and coachee, bound by the relationship where the former is a direct line manager of the latter? I would argue that this would be difficult. It seems that for most managers it presents a challenge to dissociate themselves from their primary, day-to-day managerial (mostly command-and-control) role and take on a coaching role instead: A "manager" will still affect a "coach" at core. It is even more difficult for coached employees to become so uninhibited and open-minded, while being coached by their direct managers, that they feel "safety and freedom" -- something that is required for long-lasting learning.

Does this mean that what managers and other senior staff members do is wasteful? Absolutely not! But the use of terminology might be somewhere misleading. What is being viewed by many organizations as coaching could be better qualified as targeted training, mandatory performance improving, mandatory knowledge sharing -- something that requires hand-holding, corrective action by a manager; it's still very important but not quite coaching. And it is also true that frequently it is less competent and less motivated people who fall into the scope of "managerial coaching" that is predominantly directive in nature.

The view of coaching by many organizations also explains some of the challenges that, as previously referenced here, face many nonmanaging coaches today.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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