Helen Tupper: Coaching makes teams more likely to succeed than judging them

Published: 23 August 2016 By Helen Tupper

When managers encourage improvement rather than passing judgement on failure, staff feel less risk averse and more motivated to achieve things that are important to them. And better yet, coaching skills can be easily learned.

Helen Tupper

I read a quote recently that said a manager should be “more like a coach and less like a judge“. It struck a chord and made me think about how I interact with my own team. Rather than make up my own answers to this question, I asked them directly about what they thought of my management. The answers were revealing. When I was in judging mode, I made my team feel they “couldn’t ask for help” and “didn’t want to do anything wrong”. Conversely, when I was in coaching mode they felt I created “an open environment that fosters trust, where I can thrive”. Thankfully, they felt I only spent 10% of my time in ‘judging’ mode, but still there was a case to increase my coaching skills to bring the best out of my team.

A coaching skill set has been proven to be a key differentiator between effective and average managers. Given that effective managers increase the value they create for their organisations, there is a commercial case for organisations as well as individual managers to develop this capability.

The value of a manager using a coaching approach is centred on their ability to understand individual motivations. The most powerful motivator at work is making progress on something that is personally meaningful and therefore a manager gets the best from their team by understanding what drives and is important to them, and making connections between this and their work. This is only possible by asking questions and exploring answers, a key facet of a coaching skill set.

The great thing about skills is that they can be learned. While some people might have a more natural affinity with a coaching style of management, everyone can learn to increase their conscious application of the key tools.

How to increase your coaching competence

  1. Listen to yourself – your language is key to understanding your current style. Imagine a situation where someone in your team has produced a piece of work that is below expectation. Questions such as ‘Where do you think the gaps are?’ and ‘How do you think we could build on this further?’ are far more powerful than statements like ‘This isn’t what I expected’ or ‘I don’t think this is the right way to do this’. At its simplest level, this is about asking questions, so tune yourself in to the balance of questions versus statements you are using with your team. As a caveat to this, questions starting with ‘why’ can be loaded with judgement – for example, ‘why have you done it this way?’ – so use them with caution.
  2. Know your triggers – there are certain situations that will naturally take you into judging mode. My trigger is being up against tight deadlines. If we’re at risk of missing them, I can default to being judgemental as I try to take control. For other people it might be about work going to a senior internal audience or work that is high profile externally. Whatever your trigger is, be aware of it and force yourself into coaching mode at this critical point.
  3. Trust people to succeed…and to fail – coaching empowers your team. It will lead to them achieving more than they would have done with a controlling manager who limits their capability and freedom. However, it’s likely to bring with it some failure along the way and a coaching manager needs to be comfortable with that and ensure that their team members learn from mistakes and ‘fail forward’. Failure can be a trigger for judgements to creep into our behaviours and set the team back from taking risks next time. A risk-averse team that fear judgement will operate with stabiliser wheels on and never achieve their full potential.
  4. Get feedback – understanding what your team thinks about your management style is hugely insightful. Even if you have annual 360-degree feedback processes, it can be more valuable to ask a few specific questions to gain the insight you need on the impact of your management style. For ease, why not try the questions I use with my own team:
  • When have you felt ‘judged’ by me? How did it feel?
  • When have you felt ‘coached’ by me? How did it feel?
  • What percentage of time do you think I spend in ‘judging’ mode versus ‘coaching’ mode?

Shared over email, this can provide a quick view into team perceptions and become a valuable asset for your reflection and development.

Of course, some situations may still require judgement, but you can use this consciously and selectively, rather than as a default management style for all eventualities.

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