Leader as Coach: How to Have Manager-Employee Coaching Conversations

November 1, 2021

Leader As Coach

The ability to have effective coaching conversations is one of the most important leadership skills your managers can possess.

In fact, as an organisation, you simply cannot afford for them not to be having these conversations.

Why?

Because as many as 85% of employees believe that more frequent performance-related discussions with their managers would make them feel more confident in their roles.

Which in turn leads to more engaged employees and better performance outcomes.

So, the question is, how can you train your leaders to become coaches?

Throughout this article we’ll cover this and more.

More specifically, we’ll discuss how your organisation can adopt a coaching culture, why it’s so important that your managers are having continuous feedback conversations with their direct reports, and even provide examples and advice on what an effective coaching conversation looks like.

The importance of adopting a coaching culture

Organisational success relies on a culture that encourages active listening, constructive questioning, empowerment, rapport and regular two-way conversations.

Coaching enables this.

In fact, there are several ways your organisation can start to develop a coaching culture:

1. Shift from traditional performance reviews to continuous feedback conversations

For many companies, the days of annual performance reviews are numbered.

Now while that’s not to say there isn’t a place for appraisals anymore, organisations can no longer rely on them alone if they want to develop high-performing teams.

Why?

Just look at the numbers.

In a study conducted by TriNet, 74% of millennials – those born after 1980 – felt in the dark about how their managers and peers thought they were performing at work and 62% have felt blindsided by a performance review.

Lack of regular performance discussions also caused anxiety and mistrust, with 59% of employees even stating that their managers hadn’t been prepared when giving feedback during these annual performance reviews.

The bottom line is that at best, traditional performance reviews result in low morale and at worst, they lead to employees handing in their notice.

So, what’s the solution?

Replacing these annual performance reviews with far more regular performance discussions.

In other words, coaching conversations.

2. Improve psychological safety

Another benefit to having a coaching culture is that it can help improve psychological safety amongst employees.

In fact, this is particularly important as low levels of psychological safety is often the cause of underperforming teams.  

Just take the fact that teams with low levels often experience the following:

  • Individuals being afraid to speak up in fear of criticism, judgment or negative consequences
  • Team members pointing the finger and shifting the blame, rather than taking responsibility
  • People talking behind each other’s backs

By striving to improve psychological safety in your organization you not only tackle these problems head on, but you stand to create a more engaged and motivated workforce.  

A coaching culture can specifically help with psychological safety, for the simple reason that coaching equips team members with trust, curiosity and confidence, each of which play a role in improving it.

In addition to this, organizations with a coaching culture often set out team behaviors, or team norms, to define the boundaries and expectations of team members.

This in turn gives teams a safe space to share opinions and call out negative behaviors.

3. Equip managers with the right skills, tools and knowledge

It’s not enough to just tell managers that they need to start coaching their teams, you need to give them the tools and training to be able to do it.  

After all, becoming a coach goes beyond adopting a coaching mindset and requires learning new skills.

Here’s the thing.

If you’re hoping that a one-off training course will be enough, it won’t be.

Why?

Because in order to effectively train leaders as coaches, they need to be able to reinforce the skills they learn.

In other words, they need to be able to put them into practice.

This essentially means that you need to be giving them the knowledge so that they can develop the right coaching skills, for example being able to have a coaching conversation with their direct reports and developing active listening skills, while also giving them the tools to be able to embed these skills into everyday practice.

Have a read of our guidance on how to successfully create a coaching culture within your organization.

How to have a coaching conversation

The ability to have a coaching conversation may be a skill, but with the right guidance and training it’s something that any manager can be supported in doing.

The important thing is that they know when they should be having these conversations.

While there’s no exact blueprint, managers should be aiming to have weekly, if not fortnightly, one-to-ones with their direct reports. You can learn more about choosing the right meeting cadence here.

While some will be a simple 15-minute check-in, they should be investing time into having conversations around the employee’s strengths, their career development opportunities, general feedback discussions and reviewing goals.

For coaching conversations to be effective, managers must also be able to listen and respond when needed. More specifically they need to develop active listening skills.

In other words, they need to be able to hear what someone is not only saying verbally, but also understand what they’re not saying, for example by reading their body language. By being fully engaged in the conversation, managers can absorb, understand and retain what’s being said.

While you can learn more about active listening here, it specifically involves managers taking the following steps:

1. Giving employees their full attention

It’s important that managers are giving each team member their full attention when having a coaching conversation.

One of the best ways to do this is by embracing pauses, in order to ensure the person being coached isn’t being cut off from talking. It’s also important that they are giving them full eye contact.

2. Avoiding judgment

As the listener, you may not always agree with what the person is saying, but for leaders to be coaches they need to withhold judgment and avoid any interruptions.

3. Reflecting

Another important active listening skill is to reflect on what’s been said.

Managers should never just assume they’ve understood correctly and should instead paraphrase key points to make sure they’re on the same page.

In other words, they should repeat, in their own words, what they’ve interpreted.

A few ways they can do this include:

  • If I understand you correctly…
  • If I understand you right, you’re saying that…
  • So, you were frustrated when…
  • [Summary of statement]: Did I paraphrase what you said correctly?

Ultimately, the paraphrase should be shorter than the original comments made and should always phrased as a question.

4. Clarifying

If a comment is ambiguous or unclear, it’s okay for the active listener – in this case the leader as coach – to ask clarifying questions, for example:

  • Just so I’m clear, do you mean...
  • Sorry, I don’t follow you.

Clarifying isn’t just about clearing up confusion though and should also be used to probe employees to reflect themselves and solve their problems.

Managers can do this by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • Can you tell me more?
  • What’s standing in the way of…?
  • What do you think about…?
  • Can you describe…a bit more?
5. Summarizing key themes

At the end of the coaching conversation, managers should summarize the key themes that came from the conversation.

This not only helps to improve accountability and ensure that both parties are fully aligned, but also opens the discussion up to next steps.

In fact, every coaching conversation should finish with an action plan.

The bottom line is, to have an effective coaching conversation, managers need to be able to listen carefully, respond thoughtfully, and avoid imposing their own views or thoughts.

We’ve put together a list of additional coaching skills they should be developing, including being able to develop emotional intelligence and having the ability to recognize what’s going well.

Topics for coaching conversations

We’ve covered the skills that managers need to develop to have coaching conversations with their teams, but we haven’t yet covered the different topics that tend to arise in these types of conversations:

  • Time management
  • Missed deadlines
  • Managing stress
  • Problem solving
  • Goal setting
  • Obstacles
  • Performance

Example coaching conversation

No two conversations will be the same, but this example of a coaching conversation will hopefully give the managers in your organization an idea of what they can expect.

For the record, this scenario assumes that the employee is a graphic designer working in-house in a company.

Employee:  I’m really struggling with my workload, and I wanted to talk to you about it.

Manager: I’m glad you’ve come to me, it’s what I’m here for. What are you struggling with exactly?

Employee: I just have so much on my plate, and I’m stressed I won’t meet my deadlines.  

Manager: When you say you have so much on your plate, what do you mean by that?

Employee: I’m involved in so many big projects across the business, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done in time.

Manager: I can see how that might be an issue. What do you think your options might be for solving this problem?

Employee: I think I might need some help finishing the projects, at least in the short term. I could ask someone in the team, or we could outsource some of the artwork to our agency?

Manager: They both sound like reasonable suggestions. So, what’s the next step?

Employee: I’ll send Sam a message after this and ask if he can help. If not, I’ll contact the agency.  

Manager: Okay, great. You mentioned about this being a short-term solution, but what can you do to prevent this from being an issue going forward?

Employee: Hmm, I think I could probably be better at managing people’s expectations around deadlines.

Manager: How do you see that working?

Employee: Maybe by using Asana to manage my time better, so I know what’s coming up and what I have capacity to take on. I can then tell the project managers when I’ll be able to work on their project and give them an idea of timelines.

Manager: That makes a lot of sense. Do you feel confident using Asana?

Employee: I could do with a refresher. I’ll put something in our team’s Slack channel and see who is free to run me through it.

Manager: That’s great. Let me know if there’s anything I can help with. In the meantime, I’ll set up a follow up chat in a week’s time.

Employee: Thank you so much. 

Again, not all coaching conversations will be as straightforward as this one, nor will the team member always arrive at a solution as quickly.

This brief example of a coaching conversation should, however, give managers an idea of how they should be interacting as a coach and how they should be striving to help their employees come up with a solution to their problem by themselves.

Final thoughts on training leaders as coaches 

We mentioned earlier that with the right guidance, tools and support, almost any manager or team lead can become a coach.

What we haven’t yet mentioned is that for leaders to become successful coaches, they need to be putting the skills they develop into practice, on a day-to-day basis.

Saberr helps make this possible by providing on-the-job leadership coaching. In fact, we not only provide managers with guidance, templates, exercises and learning content to help them transition from leader to coach, but we deliver these resources in the flow of work to ensure that learning sticks and that their teams are developing the right habits for effective teamwork.

Want to find out more? Have a read of this.

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