If you’ve ever been on a sports team or watched a sporting event, you’ve seen the power of coaches. They always seem to know what to say when a player is about to give up, can deliver a rousing pep talk that spurs their team to victory and possess the skill to take an athlete’s talent to the next level.
It’s no wonder, then, that the coaching leadership style has taken hold in the business world. Much like a coach-athlete relationship, the coaching leader-direct report relationship is built on trust and encouragement with an eye toward personal development.
To better understand the definition of a coaching leadership style, it helps to go back to the year 2000. That’s when psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review explaining the leadership research findings of Hay/McBer, a firm with which he consulted. They had studied a random sample of 3,781 executives worldwide and identified six leadership styles, one of which is coaching.
“Coaching leaders help employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and tie them to their personal and career aspirations,” Goleman writes in the article.
So what exactly does that look like on a day-to-day basis? A manager who uses the coaching leadership style:
Further, Hay/McBer’s research found that effective leaders use all six styles at different times, depending on the circumstances. They also found that coaching is the least used style of the six. Participants told them that they didn’t have the time to teach and develop personal growth with every team member.
But managers who fail to employ the coaching leadership style at least some of the time are missing out on the following benefits.
In a 2005 paper published in R&D Management, Kina Mulec and Jonas Roth conducted an eight-month study of project teams for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Their goal was to determine how team coaching might affect performance.
They concluded that coaching interventions—such as encouraging the teams to interact with each other better—boosted performance. Respondents reported that it was helpful for coaches to intervene during meetings and point out where they were getting stuck.
A paper published in Human Resource Development Quarterly in 2003 explored the link between line managers' coaching behavior and their direct reports' job satisfaction. The researchers chose to use employees in warehouse distribution, an industry traditionally plagued with high turnover, and developed a list of eight coaching behaviors to survey them about. In the end, they found that coaching behavior was positively correlated with job satisfaction.
Another interesting finding from this study is that there is a gap between how much coaching supervisors think they’re giving and how much their direct reports perceive to be receiving. While supervisors reported providing their employees with high levels of coaching behavior, those same employees reported receiving low to moderate levels of coaching behavior from their supervisors.
A study published in Leadership & Organization Development Journal in 2019 found that a coaching leadership style can create psychological security and an openness to change that result in employees speaking freely about workplace challenges. This, in turn, leads to more creativity and innovation.
There’s a reason coaching is the least used leadership style: It takes time. Rather than barking out orders, you have to slow down, observe and listen to your team members, deliver feedback and work with them on improving. Not every manager has that much time, especially in a fast-paced industry or a crisis situation.
Because coaching focuses on personal development rather than tasks, an employee must want to learn and grow for this leadership style to be effective. Otherwise, you’re better off employing a coercive style (which, according to Goleman, "demands immediate compliance") if you just want to get the task done quickly, or the authoritative style (which, he says, "mobilizes people toward a vision").
As Goleman writes in HBR, “Many managers are unfamiliar with or simply inept at coaching, particularly when it comes to giving ongoing performance feedback that motivates rather than creates fear or apathy.”
To make matters trickier, as we learned in the warehouse study mentioned earlier, many supervisors think they’re doing more coaching than they actually are.
A good coach constantly observes their team members to see where they excel and where they struggle. Rather than nitpicking or micromanaging, though, coaching leaders think about how these strengths and weaknesses affect each employee’s overarching goals and will work with each one to improve their performance.
Beyond observation, another way to discern someone’s strengths and weaknesses is through a people analytics tool like F4S, which condenses 20 years of workplace motivation research into an assessment that delivers evidence-based insights.
Most people dread giving someone constructive criticism, but a coaching leader knows this is essential to helping their team get better. A coaching leader delivers feedback on weaknesses in an encouraging way, always reminding the employee of their potential. Failing to communicate effectively about weaknesses might demotivate your employee instead of challenging them to grow.
For example, let’s say one of your salespeople is falling short of their monthly sales quota. A pacesetting leader—which Goleman says "sets high standards for performance"—might say to them, “You haven’t met your quota. I expect you to work overtime because the company needs to reach 1,000 sales this month to be in the black.”
On the other hand, a coaching leader might say, “You haven’t met your quota. Let’s try tweaking your sales pitch to see if that helps. I believe in you, and I know boosting conversions is one of the goals you said is important to you. So let’s give it a shot. I’m happy to review the new pitch and give feedback.”
Notice how a pacesetting style focuses on the goals of the company, while a coaching style focuses on the personal growth of the individual.
Remember, coaching leadership focuses on long-term development, not short-term task completion. Work with each of your team members to figure out what their goals are and collaborate on a plan to help them achieve those goals.
A strong coaching leader will equip their team with everything they need to succeed. For instance, if your direct report struggles with public speaking and has expressed an interest in developing their communication skills, you might assign them to a challenging task that will help them grow in that area, such as delivering the team update at an all-hands meeting. Additionally, you might even sign them up for a communication skills workshop or connect them with a mentor.
Frequent feedback and check-ins will be essential to helping your team achieve their goals. You can try this two-pronged approach:
By having both the team and individual element when it comes to check-ins, you’ll create an environment where your coaching leadership style can shine.
Even if you’re not into sports or lack the gift of giving pep talks, you can develop an excellent coaching leadership style. As with any skill, it takes learning and practice. But remember, there is no one “best” style of leadership. As Goleman and Hay/McBer found in their research, the most effective leaders employ at least four of the six styles.
In the coming weeks, focus on improving your coaching leadership style and see how it fosters your team’s personal development.
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