Biggest Coaching Mistakes Managers Make

Are you trying to adopt a coaching style in how you work with your reports? That’s terrific, and promises a range of benefits to your reports’ growth and careers, your team’s performance, and your own leadership capability. But many managers learning to coach bring some misconceptions about what effective coaching is – and isn’t. Here are the top managerial coaching mistakes I’ve observed, the effect of these mistakes, and some thoughts about what you might try instead.

Giving them the answer.

Many managers new to coaching think it’s about “teaching them how I do it.” These managers struggle to unpack and articulate how they solve this problem or address that issue, they show that approach to their report, and they conclude they have successfully coached.  But coaching is about building another person’s independent ability to act. Sometimes, indeed, what a person needs is a technical skill, something you can teach or show them. But more often than not, a person needs help thinking through and solving a work challenge on their own, or identifying thoughts or behaviors that hinder their success. This kind of help requires you to ask, not tell. When you help the coachee to surface their own answers, this changes them.

Treating coaching as an event.

Managerial coaches have a huge advantage over professional coaches like me. The advantage is, you interact with your reports in the act of doing the work together. You actually have first hand information about how they approach their work, what they do that works and what they do that doesn’t work. So why would you confine your “coaching” to a weekly meeting? If you weave your coaching into the fabric of the work, this allows your coachee to get feedback in real time, when the insight can be most powerful and when they can do something about it.

Talking in code.

When managers observe their reports behaving in problematic ways, they can find it challenging to talk directly with the report about it. In part, they may fear the difficult conversation. And sometimes they may find it challenging even to identify the problem behavior precisely. So they say, “you need to be more of a team player,” or, “you need to think more strategically.” Feedback to a coachee can be tremendously valuable, especially in raising the coachee’s awareness of a potential blind spot. But useful feedback requires concrete descriptions of observed behavior and its effects. As a coach, it’s important to discipline yourself to look for those observable behaviors before you provide your feedback.

Only coaching problem performers.

Everyone, no matter how effective currently, is on a journey. This is not to say you should stop coaching the people who have issues. But think about the challenges that your highest-potential people might face. Career growth? A desire to broaden their impact in the organization? A frustrating working relationship?  With any coachee, it’s important to have the conversation about their (and your) goals for the coaching relationship, and you may get some unexpected insight when you have this conversation with someone you assumed didn’t “need” coaching. And your high-potentials will reward you with eager and fast learning.

Confusing your managerial agenda with your coaching agenda.

Sometimes your interests and the interests of your coachee will be in conflict. For example, the coachee may be questioning his/her long-term career goals, while you see the coachee as a successor candidate for your position. As a manager and a coach, you need to remain aware that you have this double power. And you need to remain aware and transparent about which “hat” you are wearing at any particular time with your coach. Your role as a managerial coach is not to impose your will on your coachee in the guise of coaching.

De-prioritizing coaching when the “real” work becomes urgent.

When work pressures build, devoting time to coaching can quickly fall by the wayside. Why? Because, at a deep level, many managers believe coaching is distinct from the “real” work. But think about what a great coaching opportunity a crisis can be. When you are crunched, instead of putting your head down, why not use the opportunity to delegate one of those projects to your coachee, and use that project as a coaching opportunity?

Relying on the coachee to identify needs and initiate conversations.

It’s important to be responsive when your coachee reaches out to you and wants your help in thinking through a challenge. But often, your coachee doesn’t know when they are facing a challenge, or headed for a landmine, or about to make a big mistake. It’s important that you maintain your lens to spot trouble on the horizon. Sometimes your coachee will come to the table with “nothing to talk about.” A key coaching capability is to be able to use inquiry to surface what’s going on for them at the moment, and to surface un-recognized challenges and landmines.

Entering with a firm agenda.

In some ways, this is the converse of the previous mistake – not being too passive as a coach, but being too active. It’s valuable to walk in the room with a point of view on the kind of conversation you want to have, and how you want to help your coachee – a model, if you will. But once you get in the room, your first job is to really listen to and understand your coachee.

Treating coaching as a one-way exchange.

Many managerial coaches assume that the learning in a coaching relationship flows in one direction – from you to the coachee. In the process of your coaching relationship, you have the opportunity to profoundly grow and change as well. You are transforming yourself into a “generative” leader who gets fulfillment through enabling the growth of others in service of a collective goal. Reflecting on your own behavior and motives as a coach will aid in this transformation.

Think about your own efforts to coach your people. Do you experience any of these pitfalls? Have you learned from other mistakes I haven’t mentioned? Let us know your thoughts.

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7 comments on “Biggest Coaching Mistakes Managers Make

  1. Mike Henry Sr. on said:

    Joan, great post. I especially appreciated “De-prioritizing coaching when the “real” work becomes urgent.” Very tempting for all of us. Thanks for the great post. Mike…

    • Thanks, Mike – too true. One reason I think it’s so tempting is that many effective people who become leaders still get gratification from being the hero. Developing as a coach involves a mindset-shift (and priority-shift) where one sees and experiences the gratification of accomplishment through growing others.

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  3. Robert Witherspoon on said:

    Tx, Joan.

    Great advice for managerial coaches, and the rest of us.

    One other mistake I’ve observed among managers seeking to adopt a coaching style is failing to make this activity a regular activity, so I often suggest ways to make coaching happen, e.g. set aside a regular time, as at the beginning and end of retreats, after-action reviews and similar events, like the mid-point and end of key assignments.

    Best regards, Robert

    • Hi Robert,
      I agree. Creating a structure in the ways you suggest can help in lots of ways – it “institutionalizes” the coaching conversation in a manager’s practice, and it also ensures that the conversation is tied to real-work events and observations. Thanks!
      best, Joan

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  5. Allison on said:

    Great suggestions. I read somewhere else that managers may want to coach people who do not report to them so they do not confuse the managerial agenda with the coaching agenda–that’s a challenge for many folks.

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