Coaching your staff

Today’s business environment and the attitude and expectation of employees do not lend themselves to the old command-and-control style of management. Gone are the days where the boss sends a flurry around the office when he cracks a whip in the morning before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.

Today’s employee wants a more personal approach with managers. Increasingly, we hear about managers playing the role of coaches to their employees. There are already courses being run on the subject, such as the Australian Institute of Management’s Manager as Coach course.

However, there are some quite serious cultural and organisational challenges if you are trying to be a coach to your employee, while still wearing your manager hat.

1.      Confidentiality and reporting

Professional coaches usually subscribe to a code of ethics that entails very strict standards of confidentiality.

For example, the International Association of Coaching (IAC) code of ethics includes an extensive treatment of confidentiality, summed up for me in the sentence “All information obtained in the course of the professional service is confidential unless there is a compelling professional reason for its disclosure.”

But what if the manager learns something from the employee that puts the employee at a disadvantage when it comes to year-end review? Can the manager then raise that with a more senior person? Technically, a professional coach would say not unless there is a prior agreement with the person being coached.

 2.      Listening

Coaches place a high value on listening in a non-judgemental, objective way. They do this very well when training their athletes day in and day out.

At the risk of over-generalisation but based partly on my own years of experience as a coach, manager and senior executive, managers are expected to get to the point quickly, make decisions, and get everyone onboard quickly. Sometimes listening is a luxury you can’t afford.

3.      Power Relationships

However advanced or enlightened the management of a company may be, if you are a manager and you are coaching someone you supervise, there will always be an imbalance between the power relationship in your favour and in the company’s favour.

The coachee may be able to opt out of being coached by you, but may at the same time have an apprehension that this will go against her or him in some way.

READ: How to train customer relations staff


I don’t believe anyone has yet come up with a “lock-in” solution to these challenges. Here are some suggestions for a “workaround”.

1.      Confidentiality

There should be agreements worked out in advance between management and staff about what must be kept confidential and what may be shared up the line.

Even when something is deemed to be in principle “shareable”, there must be an understanding that the staff member concerned will not be kept in the dark but will be fully aware that something is to be shared.

2.       Listening

Apart from having professional training to build listening skills, one thing that managers can do, which is common practice among professional coaches, is some form of “buddy coaching”. This is where two managers agree to coach one another and give one another feedback.

A very powerful version of “buddy coaching” is where three people work together, two coaching one another in turns. The third acts as an observer and reports to the others on their listening skills.

3.       Power relationships

For coaching by managers to work, there needs to be a level of trust, that in these days of instant and often massive downsizing, cannot be taken for granted.

Trust can’t be demanded. It needs to be built in practice. Start with explicit agreements about how the coaching process is going to work and what expectations and limitations exist.