Coaching in the workplace, when done right, is simply about coaxing the best solution or path forward out of someone else. It requires, in that moment, that the manager forgets everything they know and everything they’re an "expert" in.

With genuine care and undivided attention, a manager creates the space (and navigates the conversation) so that the employee can find the best solution. Using the right tools and skills for the conversation, a manager puts the ball in the employee’s court, handing over some control. With more control over the situation comes ownership, commitment and accountability - which is missing in a lot or organizations.

With more control over the situation comes ownership, commitment and accountability.

Simple, right? Not exactly. Being a manager who coaches requires giving up something none of us like to part with:


Giving up control, or power, is often uncomfortable and scary for leaders at any level. The Neuroleadership Institute explains the five domains of experience that activate strong threats and rewards in the brain, influencing a broad range of human behaviors. It describes that every person is triggered, on varying levels, by the presence or absence of these five domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (SCARF).

Those with leadership roles and management responsibilities often feel the need to control an outcome in order to ensure certainty and manage their status. Because you’re wired to own and control your piece of the organizational ecosystem, you are by definition threatening any of these five domains for your employees. Naturally, the conversations between you and your employees will reflect this dynamic.

I was at a seminar with Sheri Bronstein, Global Head of Human Resources for Bank of America, and when asked what they do to retain talent she said that they re-train people on how to manage noting that “the most important thing in an organization is the one-on-one conversation.”

I couldn’t agree more with Mrs. Bronstein. I often liken the conversation between a manager and their employee to a stage. I ask ask my clients: What kind of conversations are you having? Are you the one always on stage (doing all the talking), backstage (not available) or in the wings (coaching your team)?

To get off stage and coach from the wings instead is to give up some control - or autonomy as referenced in SCARF - to your team. Sometimes this means letting them own the solution-finding process, stimulating their thinking and asking questions. It’s amazing what simply listening can do in appealing to employees' desire for relatedness and connection.

Coaching is at the heart of managing people, and managing people is about developing them. When an employee says they want to be coached, what they are really saying is they want to be developed and on stage for a moment - their need for fairness or autonomy may be kicking in.

Coaching is at the heart of managing people, and managing people is about developing them.

When a manager says they want to offer an employee coaching, what they often end up doing is “telling” or giving direct feedback. It might sound something like this:

  • Manager: “I’d like to give you some coaching”
  • Employee: “Great!” (Said with genuine excitement. After all, coaching is about helping someone reach their greatest potential by involving them in the solution-finding process)
  • Manager: “You should consider changing the flow of your story for the presentation”

This is not only a missed opportunity, but also a mis-labeling of coaching and a first step towards disengagement. No matter what level you are in the organization, a conversation like this - where all the power and ideas rest in one person’s hand - is not good in the long-term.

I’ll never forget one of the first times I was (forced) on stage. A vacancy on our team meant I would lead a communications strategy session with the CCO, CEO and COO of a joint venture on my own. I was coached to come up with my own approach by being asked good questions that empowered me to develop a plan I felt would work best. My president could have told me what to do, but instead he engaged me in the process and so I felt ownership, accountability and commitment, and as a result I was successful. 

What kind of conversations are you having? Are you always on stage, are you backstage, or are in the wings coaching? I would love to hear your thoughts and best practices.

This blog is Part I of a two-part series focused on the magic of manager coaching. Stay tuned for Part II, my favorite coaching (and life) skill.