How Bosses Have the Wrong Idea About Coaching Their Peeps

Last week I was teaching the principles and practice of “coaching” at an “executive boot camp” and these women and men were good. I asked for volunteers to give me feedback and the two who took turns were s-m-o-o-o-t-h.  They complimented me first and made me comfortable before delivering the coaching that I requested. One was so smooth that he tried to rely totally on what I thought I might do better. Clever.

If you’ve been reading this Reading for Leading blog, you probably know that I think most of us, more often than we think, are pretty insecure. We easily slide into flight, or if necessary fight, when challenge appears to approach. And we do this even though the other is very often not trying to attack, and when if we were in their shoes, we wouldn’t think of it as an attack either. So the point I was delivering to the execs was this:  If you want to “coach” (advise, give feedback to, etc.) someone, begin by asking if they are open to coaching so they don’t see you as a threat.  And proceed only if you get an unequivocal yes. I got great push-back.

One of the execs raised his hand and said, “I totally appreciate how you would ask a peer if they were open to some input, but I don’t follow you when you say you should ask a direct report if they are open to feedback.” He went on:  “I have a responsibility to give them feedback and coaching, so why would I need or even want to ask if they’re open?”  Wasn’t he expressing what everyone in sports, the military, family, school, and any halfway traditional business operates on? Higher-ups have a right to give coaching and advice. I stuck to my position for one reason I gave him, and one more I’ll share.

Why do I ask for openness of my kids, even though yes, my wife and I pay for their food, shelter, etc., and we are older and wiser, and our brains have fully developed — and haven’t fully deteriorated 😎 and as the gentleman said to me in protest, we have a responsibility to coach them?  Here’s the first reason why I still ask “are you open to some input?”  From the time our kids are 12 or so, we can coach them, and they can be silent, nod “yes,” say “yes sir,” or even spit it back when we say “tell me what you think I just told you.”  Yet, none of those fine reasons why they SHOULD listen – or these statements or affirmations they offer — mean they have let me into their minds at all.  And,

, heard, considered, thought about. So, I ask so that I’m not wasting my time. I ask, because if I show respect, they might respect me.  Likewise with an employee, an intern, an aging parent, or a client. If I’m really trying to help them, then I need to know they are open to  help.

Of course, if an employee or a kid NEVER says, “yes, I’m open to your input,” that’s another story.  I’d probably show the employee the door. (The kid situation has lots more variables than I can explain here.)  But I am confident that by showing respect for their mind, their will, their control over their thoughts, I will greatly increase the chance that at some point they will sincerely want my feedback. In other words, maybe the “power and responsibility” we were given as parents, coaches, bosses, etc., has really been taking us down a path that runs directly counter to the responsibility, openness, and respect we hope our “charges” will develop.

The second reason I ask?  Simply to do unto others as I would have them do unto me.   Aren’t there times, when you don’t want somebody’s coaching?   My 24 year old has told me in no uncertain terms that that’s where she’s at with me – she doesn’t want the career guidance – and I think that’s pretty perfect! Why should she be living the way want her to live, or having to factor that in and figure out how to weight it? She needs to figure it out her own life. That IS the human project. Likewise, I can want to tell students, TA’s, or employees how think they should work, but I know there are times I really don’t want somebody coaching me on how to do my work. Does it not seem best to offer others the same respect you’d like for yourself, as you . . .

Lead with your best self.


  • As usual, I’m with you on this topic. Good column!

    Three additions. Ask with sincerity or don’t ask. If the person says no, ask when would be a better time. And in some situations the person doesn’t have an option – safety, bullying, ethics, absolute right/wrong ways to do something.

    Don’t give up if you try this and your staff always says yes because they think that’s what they have to say. One of these days they might just say no or not now.

  • As a huge advocate for coaching and having coaching “running in the background” in all settings, I agree that asking permission is the way to go for the reasons Dan stated. There are times that coaching is the perfect tool for supervisors to use to motivate staff toward positive behavior change. Be careful, though, not to coach when you need a specific outcome done a specific way…as leading someone to your way of doing things is more “strategic manipulation” than coaching. Both have their places and can be useful.

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