Three secret reasons every manager can be a great coach to the team
Coaching works really well to boost well-being and performance. No question. A study of coaching of female leaders within GSK published in 2017 concluded as follows:
the experience of coaching was reported as supporting the development of...leaders in many and varied ways, including enabling the development of skills and capabilities as well as progression in their roles...coaching supported them with self and personal identity development, relational ability and transformational learning.
Sounds like just the thing we need to democratise and make available to everyone rather than just leaders. On this note, I've written about 'coachmania' elsewhere, suggesting that bringing in ever more external or internal coaches isn't the answer. Instead, the first line of coaching defence should be managers throughout organisations. There's a handy aspect to this, which is that managers don't cost organisations any more money, but external and internal coaches do.
But can managers be effective coaches? What makes coaching so effective? These are the questions I'd like to dwell on in this article.
It's all about technique, knowing the right model and judging when to apply it, right? And the very best coaches are the ones with the biggest arsenal of tools to choose from aren’t they?It turns out there's no evidence of this at all. To argue this would be wishful, self-limiting or self-serving thinking, depending on your perspective.
I have also written about coachability and the five mindsets of people who are offered coaching. Turns out coachability has a lot to do with how successful a coach is. How much do I mean by a lot? I mean that more than half the success of coaching is down to the person being coached rather than the coach!
Where do I get this idea from? Well, given the nature of the work it is hard to prove anything definitively and I suppose I'm taking advantage of that. You've got so many variables and a lot of research, including meta analyses of the research proving that the findings contradict each other.
Fifteen years ago, when Kenneth De Meuse was Vice President of Global Research at Korn Ferry he had this to say in an article on evaluating the effectiveness of executive coaching:
The paucity of empirical research may be attributed to the lack of a consensus among divergent professionals regarding whether and how to evaluate the effectiveness of coaching.
Not much seems to have changed since. When he was at Unilever in 2020, Camillo Pandolfi carried out a systematic review of the literature on the so-called 'active ingredients' of executive coaching, meaning what works and doesn't work when it comes to coaching outcomes. Here's what he said:
...evidence on mechanisms and ingredients is still in its infancy and relies on limited and often flawed research, lacking replications in different contexts and cultures.
More recently in 2021, Almuth McDowall, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, oversaw research into the effectiveness of workplace coaching. She and her team concluded this:
there is still lack of rigour in many of the claims and much of the published work in coaching.
So we need to look elsewhere. Why not look at the much bigger and better studied area of psychotherapy? This is exactly what Dr Douglas McKenna did back in 2011 after architecting Microsoft's executive and leadership development efforts. Have a look at this chart from his article:
If we apply this to executive coaching, as he argues convincingly, we would conclude that 'coachability' (the ability to be coached) and the relationship explain 85% of the difference in outcomes from coaching. This is made up of three components:
- The person being coached ('client factors') explains a massive 40%
- The relationship between coach and coachee explains 30%
- The coachee's expectation of change ('hope') explains 15%
Only 15% is down to theory and techniques. And yet I know a lot of managers who worry that they can't coach because they don't have whatever it is that explains 15% of the differences in outcomes. And I also know a lot of coaches ('coachmania', remember) who focus on their credentials in this and that model or theory as if these peripheral things are core to coaching outcomes.
This is really good news, because it means that busy managers can be great coaches by investing in the coachability of people in their teams and their relationship with each of these people, rather than theories and one-size-fits-all models. They can also improve outcomes by being more confident in their abilities as the team coach, which will in turn increase the 'hope' factor.
If we need more encouragement to empower managers, here's another quote from the 2021 Birkbeck study:
...workplace coaching requires comprehensive approaches due to a sophisticated triangular relationship between the coach, coachee and organization. Therefore, coaching is regarded as a social process where contingent factors including organizational structure, political dynamics and power relationships are important influences on the coaching relationship
Now, who better than managers to know all about this triangular relationship and the 'contingent factors'? Imagine the time spent (on the clock) by someone getting to grips with what's going on around the coachee when managers are already there having intimate knowledge of all this context that contributes so much to coaching outcomes.
It surely is time to democratise coaching through managers. And imagine if managers developed their relationship-building skills, created more trust and psychological safety, and practised some coaching techniques. They'd be hugely impactful at a fraction of the cost of alternatives.
Are you willing to challenge orthodoxy, and equip and trust your managers to be the best coaches to their teams?