Coaching 101

Published: Apr 05, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Brian Emerson, Anne Loehr

A good manager must master the use of a number of different tools and know when each is appropriate and when it is not. Coaching is just one of these skills. We don’t want to give the impression that if a manager spends all of his time coaching, life will be dandy. Nothing could be further from the truth. An effective manager needs to know how and when to use the tool of coaching and when to pick another, more appropriate tool. There is an old adage that says, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

We are the first to admit that coaching is not the only, or necessarily the best, management tool. However, when used appropriately in the right situation, coaching is a surefire way of developing and managing the people who report to you.

What Is the Tool of Coaching?
As we said, coaching is not the end-all-and-be-all of management tools. Employees need coaching when they are experiencing problems with the Attitude (motivation, confidence, energy, focus, determination) component of the Success Equation. Good indicators of a coaching situation are things like:

  • when a person is experiencing trouble completing a job that he should already know how to do (i.e., there is no Aptitude issue), 
  • when a person has gotten himself completely wrapped around the axle about a certain situation, or
  • when a person needs help dealing with the frustration he experiences because they do not have the resources needed to complete the task at hand.

As humans, when we are in these situations, it is natural to need help getting ourselves out of the weeds. We need someone or something to help get us to a place where we can see things clearly and make solid decisions from a position of effectiveness and empowerment instead of a place where we are completely hung up and not seeing straight. That’s where coaching comes in. Managers should use coaching as a tool when an employee has the skills and ability to do the specific task, but for some reason they are struggling with the confidence, focus, motivation, drive, or bandwidth to deal with the situation in a manner that is as effective as possible.

Much to the dismay of many managers, Attitude issues usually far outweigh Aptitude issues. Try this experiment:

  • Think about your employees and the colleagues around you.
  • Take a minute and make a list of the types of things that they spend the majority of their time struggling with.
  • Examine the list.
  • How many things on the list have to do with Aptitude—not having the skills and abilities to do the tactical aspect of their jobs?
  • How many have to do with motivation, frustration, energy, focus, confidence, interpersonal issues, that is, the intangible things that have nothing to do with the actual skill of completing the job at hand (the “Attitude” part of the Success Equation)?

Usually, the majority of items on such a list involve Attitude—the keystone in the Success Equation that affects the Level of Success in exponential ways.

If managers want their employees to be effective, they need to be able to help them deal with all of the things that are in the Attitude grouping from the exercise above. Coaching is about providing the support and guidance necessary to do just that.

Again, our definition of a coach is someone who helps another person reach higher levels of effectiveness by creating a dialogue that leads to awareness and action. Sounds good, huh? But what does it really mean and how does that help develop employees in the situations identified above? Let’s break it down.

  • Dialogue. A dialogue is a conversation in which both parties are seeking understanding. They are not trying to prove, teach, or motivate each other to do something. Coaching is a conversation in which the coach attempts to understand, and, thereby, helps the coachee to understand, what and how it is that the coachee is blocking his own success. A coach “creates” this dialogue by using skills such as listening, asking, and others outlined in chapter 3, and by focusing on helping the other person.
  • Helpful. There has to be a genuine concern for the coachee on the part of the coach. To be effective, a manager has to really want to see the employee succeed, and he must hold the belief that his own success is connected to the success of the employee. A certain level of trust must exist and the coach cannot be in a situation whereby he is trying to “fix it.” This is tough. For the most part, managers are where they are in life because they are good at fixing things. They are so used to fixing problems, that they often don’t put themselves in the role of helping other people fix it for themselves.
  • Awareness. The reason that a coach or manager does not try to “fix it” when he is coaching is because people learn more when they figure things out for themselves, especially when they are learning about how their Attitude is hindering their level of success. People learn more when they can be involved in their own teaching, and they are much more likely to take action on that teaching and apply it again in other situations if they have discovered it for themselves.
  • Action. At the end of a coaching dialogue, there is action of some sort. The coachee will do something differently, shift the direction of a goal, or try a new approach to his situation. Without action, the dialogue is just a nice conversation between an employee and a concerned manager, not coaching.
  • Higher Level of Effectiveness. The goal of the entire coaching process is to lead to higher levels of effectiveness. This is important to keep in mind, because coaching is not a quick-hit tool. It takes time, has a laid-back pace, and usually requires a manager to stop what he is doing and focus completely on the employee and the coaching situation. The good news to all of this is that when done correctly and in the right situation, coaching works to make the job of the manager easier because it develops employees who are learning and looking for new and better ways of doing their jobs and meeting company objectives in a timelier manner.

So, coaching is helping another person reach higher levels of effectiveness by creating a dialogue that leads to awareness and action. Said differently, coaching is a two-way conversation in which a manager asks questions and provides support in a way that enables an employee to understand how they can make changes to be more effective for themselves, their manager, and their organization.

Why Does the Tool Work?
We hope that it is becoming more clear what exactly coaching is. But what makes it a good management tool, and why is it needed to meet the goals of developing employees? The answer, in short, is because coaching focuses on Awareness and Action, which are the two key tenets in Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence has quickly become recognized as one of the most important indicators of how successful someone will be in business and in life. Emotional Intelligence is awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings as well as those of others so that one can take the appropriate actions to manage oneself in a way that gets the most out of every interaction. Said more simply, Emotional Intelligence is knowing and managing your own buttons and triggers, as well as knowing and managing how you push the buttons of others. Awareness and Action are the building blocks of emotional intelligence—being aware and taking the most appropriate action to meet the goal.

Because of the word “emotional” in the term Emotional Intelligence, many managers want to write it off, saying, “This is the workplace, check your emotions at the door.” But here’s the newsflash—research has shown that the concept of checking one’s emotions at the door is impossible and that the best and most successful employees learn how to recognize, manage, and harness the power of the emotions that drive them. To do this, employees must be aware of what’s going on inside themselves, and then take the appropriate action to manage it.

Awareness, therefore, is key, because without it the likelihood of taking the most effective action is slim. Think of a dashboard in a car. All of the dials and digits exist to give you a certain amount of awareness of what is happening with the car. The gas gauge, as one example, keeps you aware of how much gas is in the tank. If you weren’t aware that the car was getting low on gas, why would you take action and put more gas in it? If we are not aware of the impact of our actions, thoughts, and feelings, then we have no reason to take action and start behaving any differently. As individuals, we spend most of our time in a reactive state. We do things and react to situations often without actually realizing why it is that we are behaving in a certain way or doing a certain thing. When we are aware of what is going on, and can see it clearly, we realize that we have a choice in how we respond.

Take Jed, for example. Jed knows how to give effective feedback. He knows how important feedback is to continuous improvement and will often talk about needing to “give so-and-so feedback.” However, it’s also important to Jed to have a tight team—one that functions well, gets along, and is seen in the company as the “team to want to be.” As a result, Jed will often delay in giving feedback because he doesn’t want to upset the dynamics of the team, and many times, Jed “forgets” to give the feedback until it is “too late,” in his opinion. This lack of feedback actually negatively affects the team because it is not getting all the information it needs to move forward. If Jed is like most people, chances are he doesn’t even see the connection between these two things, because we are often too close to our own “stuff” to see it clearly. If Jed isn’t aware that this is going on, then how can he choose to do something differently? If his manager says, “Jed, you need to get better at giving feedback,” Jed will probably think, “I give feedback just fine—when I talk to people they understand what it is that they need to do differently.” As a result, he would not choose to do anything differently.

Suppose, through a coaching conversation, Jed becomes aware that one of the things that gets in his way of giving feedback is his desire to have a strong team dynamic. He can then explore why not giving the feedback actually hinders the team and he can choose a different strategy for giving feedback in a timely manner, perhaps by building in a specific time for feedback during his weekly one-on-ones with all of his direct reports, which would actually enhance the team’s performance.

We are willing to venture that 9 times out of 10, when an employee is having an issue at work in which he is not being as productive as possible, it is not because he does not possess the specific skill set to get the job done. Most people know how to do their work, it’s just that they let their Attitude get in the way of their performance. Think back to the lists that you made earlier in this chapter. How many of the things that people struggle with at work involve lack of skill t o do the job at hand ? Really, not that many when you stop and think about it. Most of the time, it’s their Attitude that needs improvement. To change this, they need to be made aware of what’s going on so that they can then choose to take action to correct it. Awareness is the key to producing different, more productive actions. Coaching not only helps an employee discover for himself the things that are in his way, but it also leads him to action, which is essential.

Awareness for awareness’s sake can be nice in life, but in the world of business, the key is action and effectiveness. Coaching ensures that an individual will really take some action once he has become aware of a situation, which is vital if things are ever going to be different.

Many times at this point, managers will say, “Yeah, but it’s just easier to tell the employee how to do it differently—I don’t have time for helping build awareness.” We all want a quick solution, but people need to discover for themselves if they are actually going to implement change. You can tell someone what to do, but in the long run, unless you are developing the person's self-awareness and self-management, you are going to keep finding yourself in the same situation explaining the same things and then banging your head against the same wall. As we said in the first chapter, the question is not, “Why should I waste my time coaching?” It is, “How can I not waste my time?” The answer is through coaching.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from A Manager's Guide to Coaching by Brian Emerson and Anne Loehr. Copyright 2008, Brian Emerson and Anne Loehr. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Brian Emerson and Anne Loehr (Washington, D.C.) are certified executive coaches and cofounders of Safaris for the Soul, leadership development retreats in Kenya, Patagonia, and Iceland.