The Leader as Coach: 3 Times When Coaching Is Not the Answer

In a couple of my recent posts I’ve talked about managers using coach-like skills in their conversations with direct reports. Doing this often makes conversations more impactful and effective.

But there are times when using a coaching style is not appropriate—when, in fact, it can be counterproductive and cause the other person to become frustrated.

First let’s look at a couple of instances when coaching is exactly what a manager should do.

  • When the team member knows what to do, but needs assurance they are on the right track.
  • When the person’s task is not at a critical juncture and there is time for a little trial and error in service of their growth and development.
  • When the manager feels confident the direct report has what they need to make good decisions about how to move forward.

On the flipside, managers need to know when the more open-ended, supportive style of coaching does not work. Here are some examples.

  • When the task is completely new. If this is the first time the person will be completing a task or goal – regardless of whether they have lots of transferrable skills – they are a learner who needs direction.  Asking them to define what good would look like or to come up with how to get the task done can cause a deer-in-the-headlights reaction.  Additionally, it might cause them to question their ability but keep that doubt to themselves.  Neither of these situations would foster learning.  Once the direct report demonstrates an improved skill level, the manager can turn to a more coach-like style.  For those with solid transferrable skills they will likely arrive at that place fairly quickly.  For someone newer it may take more time.
  • When a decision needs to be made immediately. If the stakes are high or a situation is urgent, there often isn’t time for the brainstorming or trial and error aspect of coaching.
  • When the direct report is not receptive. Not everyone is coachable.  Some people are reluctant to brainstorming with their boss.  For instance, it might be very important to some to always appear to have the answers—and others may see the give and take of a coaching conversation as too touchy-feely.

There is a place for facilitating coaching conversations. When the direct report is self-reliant, coaching is a preferable style to directing. It can help direct reports move forward and may draw out new and wonderful ideas. But when the person is new to a task and really doesn’t know what to do, specific direction is a more appropriate first step. Using a coaching style in this instance would reap a minimal—or even negative—return on investment.

Determining when training and direction are more appropriate than coaching is critical. Managers should ask themselves: Does this person know what they’re doing and just need a sounding board? Or do they really need direction because the task is new?

The best leadership style to use in different circumstances is not always obvious, but with a little practice any manager can become skilled at recognizing the right time to coach.  What’s been your experience? If you have any tricks to know when to coach and when not to coach, please share!

About the Author

Joanne Maynard headshot.jpegJoanne Maynard is a senior coach with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 130 coaches have worked with over 14,500 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services. And check out Coaching Tuesday every week at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.

5 thoughts on “The Leader as Coach: 3 Times When Coaching Is Not the Answer

  1. I had an employee previously that would actual feel physically sick if pressed into decision making. He was a great employee in his area of expertise, and he was content to be told what to do and was more than happy and capable to complete his assignments. That is all that he wanted. To fulfill the assignment at hand.

    While I respect that in a person, the outcome could be that opportunities are missed by the employee, especially as technology changes our jobs and our work. This employee has since retired, and enjoys every minute of it.

  2. Thanks Steve for your thoughts. As a leader it’s important to do onto others as they would want to be done unto – which I think you were doing well with your employee. You were flexing YOUR style to meet HIS needs. Way to go!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I think one of the biggest parts of management that is focused on is coaching. However there are so many times where coaching is not appropriate and unfortunately this is not as emphasized. That being said, again I really appreciate your post. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks so much for the positive feedback. There is definitely the time and place for leaders to be very directive and other times when letting the direct report do the heavy lifting [by figure out their own way to get work done] that is the best bet!

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