Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Feb. 1, 2021.
Being able to effectively coach employees is an essential management skill—yet many managers approach these important developmental conversations in entirely the wrong way.
Julia Milner, a professor in leadership at EDHEC Business School in France, and Trenton Milner, general manager of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching, explain how managers can improve their coaching skills in the Harvard Business Review.
The right (and wrong) way to coach
In order to explore how managers approach coaching, Milner and Milner asked 98 people to coach another person for about five minutes on the topic of time management. They videotaped the conversations, and they then asked both the other participants and 18 coaching experts to review and evaluate the conversations on nine dimensions:
- Assisting with goal setting;
- Encouraging a solution-focused approach;
- Giving feedback;
- Letting the coachee arrive at their own solution;
- Providing structure;
- Recognizing and pointing out strengths; and
- Showing empathy.
Milner and Milner found that many managers initially approached coaching conversations as a type of consulting in which the coach provides guidance or a solution. Coaches said things like "First you do this," or "Why don't you do this?"—and this advice-oriented approach was rewarded by higher peer ratings.
Milner and Milner argue, however, that proper coaching should be more focused on guiding recipients to uncover the right solution on their own. To determine whether managers could learn this approach, they provided the study participants with face-to-face training on coaching, then conducted another series of videotaped coaching conversations.
The training worked, Milner and Milner found. Afterward, for instance, the participants' listening skills—as rated by experts—increased 32.9%, improving their rating from "average" to "average-to-good."
Participants struggled most, according to the expert's evaluations, at "recognizing and pointing out strengths," and "letting the coachee arrive at their own solution." However, after the training, participants improved significantly on the latter skill, with an increase in proficiency of 54.1% on average, rising from a rating of "poor" to "slightly above average."
As for "recognizing and pointing out strengths," participants improved from "poor" to "average" after training. Overall, participants saw a 40.2% increase in their coaching ability across all nine skills.
What does this research mean for other managers?
The good news, Milner and Milner write, is that the study shows that improving coaching skills doesn't necessarily require months of training, but can be completed in a relatively short time.
It's also important to allow participants to reflect on their coaching skill, Milner and Milner write. In their study, participants initially rated their coaching skills as "slightly good." That rating decreased to "slightly poor" after training—showing that participants had achieved a more nuanced understanding of their own limitations.
Finally, Milner and Milner write, the study reveals that it's crucial to give managers the opportunity receive feedback from experts, as coaching by nonexperts "might reinforce and normalize ineffective behaviors throughout an organization."
If there's one takeaway from this research, Milner and Milner write, it's that "coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time." Training can help, and it's important, Milner and Milner write, because "a lack of training leave[s] managers unprepared, [and] may effectively result in a policy of managers' reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves. This can result in wasted time, money, and energy" (Milner/Milner, Harvard Business Review, 8/16).