When Coaching Is a Bad Idea

by Shana Montesol Johnson

If you supervise people at work, you have probably heard the advice that you should not only manage your direct reports, but “coach” them. While taking a “coaching approach” is a hot management trend, coaching isn’t always the best solution.  In fact, sometimes it’s a bad idea.

When managers tell me they want to learn more about how to coach their staff, the book I most frequently point them to is “A Manager’s Guide to Coaching,” (affiliate link) written by my friend Brian Emerson and Anne Loehr.  First of all, their definition of coaching – which can admittedly be a vague term – is crystal clear:

“A coach is someone who helps another person reach higher effectiveness by creating a dialogue that leads to awareness and action.”

Coaching involves asking questions, listening, reflecting – rather than directing, showing, telling, or teaching.  Coaches do not solve problems for the coachee, they help the coachee to solve the problem for themselves. Also, coaching is not just about talking – it leads to action, and hopefully, to greater effectiveness.

Brian and Anne’s definition encompasses a variety of coaching situations.  A coach can be:

  • Someone hired from outside the organization to work with managers and staff (this is what I do)
  • An employee of the organization who coaches staff whom they do not supervise (for example, some HR staff are trained as internal coaches)
  • A manager who takes a coaching approach with his/her direct report in certain situations
  • A peer / colleague / fellow employee

When Not to Coach

As a professional coach, I am the first to tout the benefits of coaching.  I have seen the positive impact of coaching on my clients, the people they manage, and their organizations (oh, and their families!).  I have also personally benefited from being on the receiving end of coaching.  Several studies have shown that coaching can enhance staff engagement, reduce staff turnover, increase client satisfaction,  improve the bottom line – and the list goes on.

Yet coaching is no silver bullet. It is not always the correct answer to any question having to do with managing people.

Based on points in Brian and Anne’s books and my own observations, here are five situations in which you should ignore the typical management advice to “coach your staff”:

1. Your staff member lacks specific skills or knowledge. If you think someone who reports to you is in need of coaching, ask yourself if the issue at hand is related to her lack of knowledge, skills, or abilities in a certain area.  If she doesn’t know how to build a project budget, she needs training, not coaching.  Asking her open-ended questions about Excel macros is not going to be very effective.  Trying to coach someone around a skill they lack is an exercise in frustration for everyone involved.

2. Your staff member’s problem is due to a lack of available resources. Are external factors keeping your direct report from succeeding?  Perhaps the problem is a shortage of staff, tight budgets, or – ahem! – lack of direction from you.  If this is the case, coaching him or her is not going to help.

3. You don’t have your staff member’s buy-in. Coaching is based on trust and the coachee’s openness to reflect on their own actions and attitudes, which may be hindering their success.  It won’t be effective if you just launch into a coaching conversation – you need to secure agreement. Ask, “Do you want some coaching on this topic?” or “Would you like to spend some time talking through some ideas?” or “Do you want to talk more about this and figure out a solution?”

4. You are pressed for time. A coaching conversation will take longer than an instructional or informational discussion.  If you’re running out the door, or your direct report is late to a meeting, it’s not the time to start a coaching session.  Also, if the results you need from him/her are urgent – e.g., the report is due in 30 minutes and it’s riddled with errors – take a different route than coaching.  There are times when direct orders are appropriate. I don’t know about you, but if my airplane is about to crash, I don’t want the pilot to start coaching the co-pilot on what to do.

5. You lack coaching skills. Coaching is not rocket science, but there are some key skills to master. If you start a coaching conversation with a direct report, and then become frustrated and start telling them what to do, you will have done more harm than good – particularly in terms of your relationship with him/her.  If you would like to learn more about coaching as a manager, I highly recommend you check out Brian and Anne’s book.

Of course, coaching is not always a bad idea – there are many situations in which coaching is a great approach to take, and yields terrific results.  Stay tuned for next week’s post, which will explore this topic further.

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Photo by Kyle May



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