A coaching approach to line management

Employees’ expectations of their bosses have shifted in recent years, and line managers who want to get the most out of their team may need to develop new skills to meet these demands.

In the past, many line managers took a directive approach, spelling out to employees what to do and how to do it. But research suggests that knowledge workers are looking for managers who are much more supportive and have more of a coaching style, helping the workers reach decisions themselves.

For those who are promoted to a line manager role on the basis of their technical skills, the new responsibilities and expectations placed upon them can prove challenging.

“When making that step up, it’s crucial to develop the softer skills, such as listening and relationship building. The key is being able to really understand what it is that drives people and gets the best results from them,” says Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, managing director of training provider Goals and Achievements.

Managers should see themselves more as facilitators and enablers and less as directors, he advises.
Brodie likens the role to that of a conductor. “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t play every instrument. What they do is bring in people at the right time. And I think that’s more and more what the manager is there to do, to facilitate, to enable, and when needs must, clear some of the blocks that inevitably appear from time to time.”

Adopting a coaching style

Adopting a coaching approach can help line managers meet employee demands for a more supportive, less directive boss. The approach focuses on performance, improvement, change, action, and learning, Brodie explains.

It involves helping people reach their own decisions by asking short, open questions to draw details about a problem or task, as well as potential solutions, from them. It builds not only their confidence, but also their ability to reflect on situations and decide how best to deal with them, which ultimately makes them more self-sufficient. Involvement in decision-making also boosts employee engagement and ownership of a task.

Here are some questions managers can ask:

  • Talk me through the situation. What do you want to achieve?
  • What are the options?
  • What’s the first step?
  • How can I help?
  • What’s possible? What are the barriers?
  • Who are the key stakeholders? Who else can be involved?
  • When do you feel less confident? When do you feel more confident?

To enable an employee to step out of his or her comfort zone and take on new responsibilities or take an idea or suggestion forward, a manager needs to create the conditions in which it’s safe to do so, Brodie says.

“If you’re going to get people to actually take a chance, you’ve got to make sure that they totally understand there’s not going to be a blame culture.”

Trust and rapport between manager and employee also have a part to play. “Really get to know people as people, not just as job titles; understand their aspirations. Understand the obstacles they are up against, the challenges they face. Reassure them in situations where they’re feeling a little bit down and things aren’t going as well as they’d like it to,” Brodie says. “The more trust you have, the easier the challenging conversations become.”

Giving feedback

Feedback is an increasingly important part of the manager’s role, though it’s something many of them find uncomfortable. One of the obstacles is the fear of not being liked, explains leadership coach Clare Haynes.

“Unfortunately, if you’re going to be a manager, you’re going to have to get used to that,” she says “It’s not about making friends or being popular. It’s about making a team work and being productive.”

Furthermore, younger employees are particularly keen to hear from managers about their performance and progress. Education has become much more assessment driven in recent years, and those joining the workforce are accustomed to constant testing, being graded, and getting the results almost instantly. This provides a regular gauge of progress and achievement which they go on to expect from their employers, explains Haynes.

For feedback to be helpful and actionable, be specific and address issues in a timely manner. “There’s no point telling someone two weeks later, ‘You behaved really poorly in that meeting,’ ” Haynes says. “People need to know exactly what they’ve done or what they should be doing, exactly what’s expected of them in the future, and what time frame it needs to be done in.”

She adds: “People just need to know when they’re doing well and when they’re not doing so well. And if that’s balanced, then you can really unlock some great talent in your team.”
Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.