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“Managers Think They’re Good at Coaching. They’re Not.” according to Harvard Business Review

 

This article originally appeared on hbr.org.

Authors: Julia Milner and Trenton Milner

Julia Milner is a professor in leadership, academic director of the Global MBA program at EDHEC Business School in France and an honorary professorial fellow with the Sydney Business School in Australia. Trenton Milner is the general manager of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching.

Are you successful at coaching your employees? Many managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do. This is hardly an effective way to motivate people and help them grow, and it can result in wasted time, money and energy.

According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.

Recently, we conducted a study that shows that most managers don’t understand what coaching really is. We asked a group of participants to coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in an MBA course on leadership training participated. The coaching conversations lasted five minutes and were videotaped. Later, these tapes were evaluated by other participants in the coaching course through an online peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the conversations. Participants then received face-to-face training. At the end, we videotaped another round of short coaching conversations, which were again evaluated by both peers and coaching experts.

The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you do this?”

Our research also looked at how you can train people to be better coaches. We focused on analyzing the following nine leadership coaching skills: listening, questioning, giving feedback, assisting with goal setting, showing empathy, letting the coachee arrive at their own solution, recognizing and pointing out strengths, providing structure and encouraging a solution-focused approach.

Using the combined coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the managers’ abilities, we identified the best, worst and most improved components of coaching. The skill the participants were the best at before training was listening, which was rated “average” by our experts. After the training, the experts’ rating increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labeled “average-to-good.” The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were “recognizing and pointing out strengths” and “letting the coachee arrive at their own solution.”

More generally, multiple assessments of participants by experts before and after the training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average.

What can organizations learn from our research? First, any approach to coaching should begin by clearly defining what coaching is and how it differs from other types of manager behavior. This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training and gives managers a clear set of expectations. The next step is to let managers practice coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their teams. You don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference. You do, however, need to invest in some form of training and make sure it includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching abilities.

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