Coaching as a management tool
“Come to the edge. We might fall. Come to the edge. It's too high! COME TO THE EDGE! And they came And he pushed And they flew.”
Christopher Logue, CBE
To me, this poem reminds me of the essence of “Coaching” – it is not about teaching, nor being the “safety net”, but believing that someone can do something, and being with them (mentally) as they do.
It is quite easy to talk about the importance of “direct” coaching to those who choose to be coached eg. People who seek out life coaching, or executives wanting to improve their skills by focused reflections, however, “indirect” coaching can have a huge part to play in learning and development. What I mean by “indirect” is the use of the coaching techniques of open questions, reflection time and feedback, but outside of the coach/coachee relationship. Coaching techniques can be used within training, and they can also be used by mangers to develop staff. These are the areas I will explore, looking first at the use of coaching within management and staff development.
To understand the application of coaching techniques within the context of management and staff development, I would like to make it clear where my management approach lies as the use of coaching relates very much to the observations I have made when training managers. I use the “Blake Mouton Grid” (see diagram) where management depends upon two factors – production (or the ability to do the job), and people skills. Managers (and their departments) fall within the axes – the most productive being the top right point (Team collaboration) – but the majority will class themselves and their departments elsewhere – often, at best, in the middle (Middle of the Road compromise). The reasons for this, at least according to managers, tend to include a lack of resources (largely understaffing) as well as some members of the team not being able to perform as well as they (the manager) would like.
Through training on recruitment and the use of various HR policies, managers have improved their ability to deal with things immediately, but one issue still remains for them “When my staff ask me something it is easier for me to do it then to teach them how to do it…or let them get on with it and then I have to do it over as it’s wrong.”
This is where Coaching comes into its own.
Two important aspects to remember with the use of coaching in management are:
It is for long term gain – although it _may_ take a little more time and effort in the first instance, it will pay dividends in staff feeling valued, staff feeling empowered, and staff performance.
It is better used in certain organisational fields than in others – often when developing a “high performing team”.
Point 2 is significant, and needs a little more explanation. The explanation will focus on service professions where there a clear distinction can be made between service types, and the effect of coaching.
Harris (2002) speaks of the difference between the service performance of “professionals” and “occupations”. For Harris a “professional” is defined by someone whose status is defined by a code of practice “…particularly the case in the legal, medical and theological so called ‘status professions’” (Harris, 2002:554). He contrasts such professions with “occupations”, finding the latter to have “…emotional labour governed by hierarchical bureaucracies [while] professions are typically self-regulating.” (Harris, 2002:555). For Harris, the distinction is significant because “…much professional work is distinguished by a reliance on the ingenuity, reflexivity and innovativeness of the individual professional.” (Harris, 2002:555), in other words, the emotional intelligence to support the emotional demands is likely to be present in the person trained in the profession and does not necessarily need to be imposed further by the specific organisation.
This is where coaching becomes significant. In a job where little prior knowledge is needed, the staff member needs to learn how to use the equipment in a short period of time and often does not stay very long (or chooses to progress into management, taking them into a different route of performance altogether), here training or direct teaching is the most effective. However, for staff members who already have training (some even needing accreditation from a professional body), direct teaching can feel dictatorial and result in them feeling undervalued, and in turn underperforming. What might, instead, be effective for these individuals is a basic induction where the foundations of the organisation are taught, but as the staff member develops into their role, their own thought process and insights will be better valued and voiced through coaching.
Where a staff member comes to the manager asking how to complete a task, what normally happens is the manager will either tell them what to do, or do it themselves – this (as mentioned earlier) devalues the skill of the staff member, while giving the manager more work to do. What may be effective (as long as time allows for it) is for the manager to ask a coaching question eg. “What three things have you considered doing?” and then “Out of those, which do you think is best and why?”…the manager is still able to take “control” over the decision due to his/her own expertise if they feel that the staff member is incorrect, but the use of coaching enables two things:
a) The staff member’s own thoughts are requested and valued
b) The manager may hear a solution that is new and innovative coming from an insightful member of the team
Point a) results in the strengthening of the team and the relationship between staff member and manager (it also means the manager does not need to exhaust him/herself doing what the staff member is hired to do), and point b) results in the strengthening of the department as new concepts and innovations are encouraged and entertained.
It is important to consider, at this point, that some managers use what they call “coaching” in order to avoid having to take any responsibility themselves – a simple “what do you want to do?” if asked without the firm understanding that although the staff member will make the choice, the manager has some accountability for the outcome, is not an appropriate use of coaching techniques.
Coaching techniques of enabling reflection time after an event has occurred, or offering feedback on staff performance are already in use in the form of supervisions or appraisals, and these will be supported by the use of coaching to skill the team.
Coaching techniques may also be employed in supporting an underperforming member of staff, although sometimes in this instance, it may be less of a conflict to engage the services of an organisational coach.
It is therefore also important to point out that while the use of coaching techniques is of great benefit to management – the manager is not a “coach” – s/he is merely utilising the skills. The relationship between coach and coachee is more collaborative and equal than manager and team member, and in the former, the coachee takes full responsibility for his or her actions. In the latter relationship, the manager will still take ultimate responsibility, but through using the techniques of coaching, is able to develop the thinking of her or her staff. If applied well, this can result in the team performing at its best – knowing that their own contribution is valued within the remit of the department – and the collaboration of innovative thought that keeps a department strong.