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How Do We Make Managers into Better Employee Coaches?

Seed Gardener

Recent­ly, we invit­ed behav­iour­al change guru Sam Nether­wood of Mudano to join our own Natasha Wal­lace for a coach­ing con­ver­sa­tion (dis­guised as a webi­nar). Sam is an old friend of Clear Review and was part of the team that imple­ment­ed Clear Review at AQA. Natasha is our Chief Con­scious­ness Offi­cer and, among oth­er things, coach­es every­one at Clear Review and makes sure we bal­ance per­for­mance with wellbeing. 

One of the key take­outs from our recent UK Per­for­mance Man­age­ment Report was a capa­bil­i­ty and avail­abil­i­ty gap. HR lead­ers expressed con­cerns about team man­agers hav­ing the time — and the skills — to hold qual­i­ty con­ver­sa­tions with their team mem­bers. There’s a big ques­tion around the skill gap — we know, for exam­ple, that 80% of organ­i­sa­tions in our research offered train­ing to man­agers to have these coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions — but, for the pur­pos­es of this piece, we’ll focus on availability.

When we look at an employ­ee who’s not grow­ing and devel­op­ing in the right way (in oth­er words, to suit the aspi­ra­tions of the team and the wider busi­ness) we tend to home in on the things they can do to cor­rect this. We might send them on a course. We might even set a Per­son­al Devel­op­ment Plan with a view to giv­ing them tar­gets they need to hit to con­tin­ue in their role. We look at the indi­vid­ual and try to fig­ure out ways that the indi­vid­ual can accom­mo­date the needs of the team. 

The chal­lenge with this, as Sam points out in the webi­nar, is that organ­i­sa­tions are com­plex sys­tems. And it’s dif­fi­cult to improve the per­for­mance of a sys­tem by tin­ker­ing with the indi­vid­ual parts. Every ele­ment inter­acts with oth­er ele­ments, form­ing a depen­dent set of con­di­tions and work­ing parts. Chang­ing one may give you unfore­seen effects in another. 

Now con­sid­er this anal­o­gy: if a gar­den­er plants and nur­tures a seed and the seed dies, he or she doesn’t blame the seed for not grow­ing. The first thing they look to is the envi­ron­ment. Just as it is with our com­plex organ­i­sa­tion or sys­tem, a gar­den is a series of co-depen­dent fac­tors. Soil. Water. Sun­shine. And so on. 

Now let’s go back to our orig­i­nal point. If you want your man­agers to be bet­ter coach­es — bet­ter man­agers, in fact, who are able to take the time and expend the effort to make their peo­ple gen­uine­ly bet­ter and more effec­tive — then you need to ask whether the sys­tem is geared to make that hap­pen. Because as we all know anec­do­tal­ly — and as our research bears out — man­agers spend the vast major­i­ty of their time being sub­ject experts. This exper­tise in their area has got them to where they are, but after a cer­tain point it becomes a lim­it­ing fac­tor. Rather than coach­ing and guid­ing their teams to fill the gap that they’ve left, they con­tin­ue to half-fill the gap them­selves. Much of their time is spent mark­ing” oth­er people’s work; point­ing out errors; immers­ing them­selves in the detail. The best esti­mate, tak­en from a num­ber of stud­ies in this area, is that most man­agers spend no more than 15% of their time (and usu­al­ly much less than that) actu­al­ly man­ag­ing peo­ple. And the sys­tem sup­ports them in this. Very rarely is a man­age­r­i­al role geared towards improv­ing the effec­tive­ness and expe­ri­ence of the peo­ple who work for them. 

Man­agers need to be incen­tivised to man­age. It needs to become a require­ment of their role: some­thing that they are encour­aged to do and mea­sured on. Train­ing can be help­ful here, but even the right train­ing isn’t always deliv­ered in the right way. Take coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions and future-focussed feed­back: we take peo­ple out of their dai­ly work­ing lives and send them off to do a course in how to do these things more effec­tive­ly, then we drop them back in their same old envi­ron­ment and ask them to apply what they’ve learned. But we don’t often stop to ask whether the con­di­tions are right for them to act on this new knowledge. 

What does that mean? It could mean giv­ing peo­ple room to fail, for exam­ple: offer­ing peo­ple with the right poten­tial enough auton­o­my to learn and devel­op whilst being aware that they may make a mess of the project. Fail­ure can be a valu­able learn­ing tool. But cre­at­ing safe-to-fail” con­di­tions takes time and plan­ning: resources that are always in short supply. 

There’s a huge amount of wis­dom in this webi­nar, includ­ing exam­ples from Sam’s own expe­ri­ence in behav­iour­al change, all sup­ple­ment­ed by Natasha’s vast expe­ri­ence pro­mot­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty and sus­tain­able high performance. 

You can lis­ten to the full webi­nar here.

You can down­load our lat­est research, the UK Per­for­mance Man­age­ment Report 2019, here.

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