On any given day, the demands that managers face are enormous. Not only do they have to manage up to senior leaders; they have to manage down to their teams. They have to be attentive to executing on organizational strategy and priorities that are set by those above them, while they also have to be equally attentive to building the skills, talents and productivity of their own team. The middle-manager is definitely that: sandwiched in the middle.
How does a middle-manager navigate such a trap? Well, one answer is coaching the members of their team.
Coaching helps team members develop self-reliance and autonomy where they find solutions to their own answers. It also allows employees the opportunity to grapple with problems while they’re coached toward solutions. Coaching also creates a motivational and stimulating atmosphere that steers employees toward peak performance. In short, coaching is an effective skill that all managers need to develop and use. So, by coaching employees, a manager can better equip their team to be productive, which frees up the demands on at least one part of that “middle” sandwich that managers contend with.
Admittedly, managers are squeezed for time. So, the obvious question is, “How in the world can I fit in coaching sessions with each of my employees?” Yes, scheduling an actual coaching session may be ideal, but in reality, managers can simply infuse coaching into regular conversations with employees. I remind my clients that any conversation is an opportunity to coach an employee. It’s not limited to scheduled, one-on-one meetings, but for those everyday interactions at work, too. And in fact, those are the most powerful because they build on each other more quickly. I remind my clients that by simply infusing a few coaching skills into daily, routine conversations with employees, they will indeed end up coaching their team members toward greater productivity.
So, what are the skills of a manager-coach? Let’s look at three.
On any given day, for any one of us, listening can be a challenge. For a manager, the pressure to meet deadlines, get work done and tackle problems can impede effective listening. So, the first step is making the choice to listen — to intentionally set aside workplace pressures by choosing to be present so you can listen. Stop what you’re doing, and make eye contact with the employee. And listen with an open mind. When you find your mind wandering, return to listening. Keep building your listening muscle by intentionally choosing to do just that: listen.
At the heart of a coaching conversation is asking questions. Managers are so used to telling other people what to do that it makes transitioning from manager to coach not so easy. It takes time to build up the skill of asking questions before offering your own ideas or advice. Asking questions helps employees develop several skills such as critical thinking, organizational acumen and problem-solving. Open-ended questions that start with “what,” “how” or “tell me more” draw out answers and uncover deeper information that helps the employee see root causes, options and solutions. And as a bonus, it increases employee buy-in.
Sometimes employees get so caught up with a problem and all their frustrations that they just want to vent and rehash it. While it may feel good to the employee, it only causes a stall. And stalls only add to the pressures that managers face.
For managers, a tip is to empathetically acknowledge the employee’s perspective and then ask a question to help the employee move forward. “What do you see as the first next step?” “What resources are needed to get over this obstacle?” or “How do you want to move forward on this before the week is over?” are all examples to get the employee out of venting and into forward movement. This strategy also helps develop an employee’s self-reliance and critical thinking skills.
As I tell my clients, look for any opportunity throughout the day to coach employees. Weaving in even a snippet of a coaching conversation on a regular basis will develop the skills, talents and productivity of employees, while helping a manager more effectively face the pressures of managing both up and down.