How to Coach

When people think of coaching, they often imagine a set coaching session that’s planned and structured. Whilst these sessions can be valuable, when thinking about coaching from a Minimum Effective Management perspective, I found that they aren’t the place where you get the most benefit from coaching.

The majority of the benefit you can get from coaching is from what I guess could be called micro-coaching. That is, the small everyday interactions you have with people when they have problems or ask for your input. Applying coaching to these interactions is something anyone can do, and doing this consistently will have a bigger impact than big planned coaching sessions.

One of the ways we make our own lives harder as managers is by trying to make too many decisions ourselves. If you’ve given someone a piece of work, for so many reasons, they should make the decisions relating to that piece of work. Coaching gives you a tool to ensure they’re making their decisions in a structured way, without taking the decision out of their hands.

Before I explain the model, I want to talk about why I think we should try to avoid making decisions.

When one of our people comes to us and tells us they have a problem with something, it’s extremely common for us to think we’re supposed to give them advice. We’ll ask a few questions, think we’ve got a handle on it, and give our suggestions. This isn’t good management.

Think about how much time you’ve had to consider the problem compared to how much time they’ve had. The employee will have been working on this problem for a while before coming to you. You’re only just hearing about it. They have had much more time to consider things than you have. Even if you believe you’re much smarter than they are, are you so much smarter that you can make better decisions than they can even with a fraction of the information? The 10 minute conversation you have with them is not going to catch you up to their level of understanding of the issue. They should make the decision, not you.

The moment you give advice, you create a new set of problems. Let’s say you make a suggestion, and they go back and start to work on the solution that you’ve suggested. If things don’t go well, they might feel uncomfortable about changing course because it would mean they were going against what they perceived to be your instructions. You have role power, so your suggestions can accidentally carry more weight than you intend them to. It’s really common for employees who’ve been given advice by their manager to follow that advice even if they don’t agree with it. After all, if it goes wrong when they did what you told them to do, they can’t get in trouble. If it goes wrong when they didn’t do what you told them to, that’s very different.

When you give them advice, nobody really wins. If you end up being right, they won’t feel a sense of accomplishment because they’ll know that you solved the problem. They also won’t learn how you solved the problem because you just gave them the answer, so that means they’ll come to you next time they have a problem as well. Alternatively, if you end up being wrong, they won’t feel the same sense of responsibility either because you’re the one who made the call. They might even start to question your judgement, especially if they didn’t agree with you in the first place.

This is where coaching can be useful.

One way to make your coaching more effective is to invert the role power. If you tell everyone that they are the decision makers when it comes to their work, not you, it shifts the dynamic of your interactions in a way that I think is conducive to better coaching. If they know you are there to offer guidance, but ultimately what they do is up to them, they’re less likely to just blindly seek your instructions.

You can then have your conversations based on the GROW performance coaching model.

Goal - What it is they want to achieve
  • What difference do you want to make?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What do you want to improve?
  • When do you want to achieve it by?
  • How achievable do you think it is?
Reality - What’s the current situation
  • What are your concerns?
  • How concerned are you?
  • Who is affected by this issue?
  • What have you done already?
  • What is stopping you at the moment?
  • What help do you need?
  • How confident are you that you can do this?
Options - What could they do to reach the goal
  • What have you already ruled out and why?
  • What could you do?
  • Could anyone else help?
  • Where could you get more information?
  • What tasks could you delegate?
  • Is there anything you can definitely do today that would help?
Way - What are they going to do
  • What are you going to do?
  • What support do you need?
  • Who are you going to get to help you?
  • How can I help you?
  • What are you going to do first?
  • How confident are you this will get done?
  • When will you have done this by?

I’ve included example questions you can ask for each step, although some of them are more suited to full coaching sessions than they will be your daily interactions. Again, I’m not against these coaching sessions, but I think they represent 5% of the benefit coaching can give you, and probably 95% of the effort required to get good at it. The quick daily interactions where you don’t need to be very skilled are where I think the biggest gains are to be made.

In terms of execution, I think the model is fairly self explanatory. You take each step at a time. You find out where they want to be, where they currently are, and what they could do to bridge the gap. You examine each option, ask them questions to help them determine which ones are viable or not, and then finally ask them to make a decision on what they’re going to do.

What this model does is show you a sensible way to make a decision, and gives you a mechanism to walk someone else through making a sensible decision of their own. You don’t have to give advice, you can just ask questions like the examples included. At the end of the conversation you should have helped them make the best decision they could.

Working this way is the exact opposite of giving advice in terms of the situation it creates. All the negatives of giving advice become positives here. If they end up being right, they feel a sense of pride that they made the right choice. If they end up being wrong they feel responsible, but they know they had your support so they don’t worry that you think they messed up. And you know they made the decision logically so you don’t feel the need to get more involved next time even though things didn’t go the way you’d hoped.

Most importantly though, you’ll find that the more you work like this, the less your people will need you. When you give advice when someone asks for it, they become dependent on your advice. When you help them make a decision rationally, they start to think that way on their own. After a while, people will automatically start thinking this way when they’re faced with problems, so you’re helping them improve rather than just giving them answers.

The more practise you have at this, and the more your people get used to you doing it, the better your results will be. There’s an interaction I’ll often have with someone just as we’ve started to get used to working with one another other…

Employee: Hey Matt, I’ve got a problem with this, what should I do?

Me: I don’t know, what should you do?

If they smile when I say that, I know that we’re getting somewhere. It means they’ve been through the conversation with me enough times to know all the things I usually would have asked before that question, and they can just ask themselves those questions.

If you find that you’re naturally a good coach, and you want to start addressing bigger issues in sit down sessions, by all means go for it. From a Minimum Effective Management standpoint though, all you really need to do is follow the model when people come to you and ask for advice. Remember it’s their decision not yours, and ask them the questions you need to ask to help them make that decision sensibly. You’ll find everyone’s working life is much easier as a result.

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