Recently, I’ve had several conversations with managers that go something like this:
Manager: “I’d like to become a better listener and really learn how to motivate my team.
They’re good enough, but I feel like something is missing. If I could get out of their way more, they’d really step up and run with it.”
Manager: “Because I find they come to me a lot. They are always bringing questions to me that they should be able to answer on their own, but they don’t seem to. I give them the answers so they’ll learn how to do it next time, but then they keep coming back. I don’t have time to do my own work. I think that maybe if I could listen to them better, I’d understand what’s really going on so I could help them to be more independent and need me less. Then I’d be able to focus on what’s really important in my own job.”
While I make encouraging noises to keep the Manager talking, here’s a glimpse into my inner thought bubble:
“Maybe it’s not about giving answers.”
“Maybe they would step up more if you would step back first.”
“Maybe they come to you because you give them answers.”
“Maybe you need an entirely different approach…”
The dynamic typically works like this: an employee has a question and approaches his or her manager. The manager provides the employee with the answer and the employee goes away to act on the answer.
The manager thinks: “Now they won’t come back to bother me, because I have given them the answer once and for all.”
The employee thinks: “That was great — my manager sure knows a lot! Next time I have a question, I’m going to my manager.”
By providing the answer, the manager has essentially started the situation that he or she is trying to avoid. How do you get out of this loop?
Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model states that an employee’s needs should dictate the approach of the manager or leader. A new employee, for example, may be very willing, but not very skilled. In this situation, it would make sense for the manager to adopt a style that focuses on telling or directing. For a mature employee who is very knowledgeable and independent, a directive manager will hamper that employee’s initiative and creativity; the manager would get better results with a delegating style.
It’s logical for the manager to assess where the employee falls on this model and adopt a leadership style that is appropriate to the employee’s needs and context. Whereas most managers seem to fall back on telling — directly answering questions, managing the details and providing basic facts — and it’s a style that is appropriate only in very specific situations with novice employees.
In the Situational Leadership model, there is another style that is sometimes referred to as coaching, which is more about helping the employee develop skills. I personally would like to see all managers and leaders take this approach and learn about the broader application and field of coaching. It helps in many situations, regardless of the developmental maturity level of the employee.
When I hear managers say that they wish employees would “figure it out for themselves”, that’s an opportunity for coaching. When managers say they wish employees would “be more independent”, that’s an opportunity for coaching. When managers say they wish employees would “make use of other resources to look for answers before coming to me”, that’s an opportunity for coaching.
When managers adopt a coach approach, they take the stance that their employee is highly resourceful and creative. They see the employee as capable, rather than incapable. They see themselves as coaching and supporting, rather than managing and answering. The role of the coach is that of asking questions, not providing answers.
The manager-coach’s main role is to listen, rather than talk. The role implies a lot of self-management as well. Typically managers are promoted because of their technical knowledge and expertise. But once you are a manager, your job is to develop knowledge and expertise in others, not give it out piecemeal and remain the expert. When you listen, you realize that the employee has useful knowledge and a different perspective. Together, you are stronger at problem-solving. Together, you are a solid team. Together, with the manager-coach asking skilful questions and the employee bringing a new and valuable perspective, the solutions will be more robust. What’s more, since the employee has been involved in the creation of solutions, he or she is more likely to make them happen, possibly even bringing some enthusiasm and discretionary effort to the task.
Not every situation is right for a manager-coach approach — the decision about which hat to wear comes with management experience and leadership wisdom. However, once managers start coaching more and telling less, they notice that employees become more self-sufficient, more creative, more resourceful and more of a joy to manage.
As one manager said to me: “This has become the part I enjoy the most.”