Are Your Managers Really Coaching?

Susan S Freeman Blog

I often hear folks speak about how they’re “coaching” others, whether it be kids, colleagues, or direct reports, and feel compelled to weigh in. Coaching, to be effective, is a very specific relationship, marked by a specific type of communication. According to an August 14, 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Julia Milner:  “managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”


“According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.”

Initial data in an ongoing study on the topic that analyzed more than 900 recorded evaluations of “coaching conversations,” showed that when many managers were asked to “coach,” they instead “demonstrated a form of consulting.  They provided the other person with advice or a solution.”

The author’s research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches.

They analyzed the following nine leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and their own experiences:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

After a short training program aimed at teaching managers to improve coaching competencies resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average.

Here are the key takeaways from the research:

  1. Define what coaching is and what it isn’t.
  2. Let managers practice coaching in a safe environment before working with their own teams.
  3. Invest in some form of training that includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching skills. Ask “what’s working” and “what can we do better?”
  4. Feedback from coaching experts in order to improve is helpful; how well are the coaching skills being applied.
  5. Consider regular peer coaching, in the presence of a coaching expert to provide a safe environment, and to facilitate discussions about how to overcome coaching challenges.

Leaders, take note.  Coaching skills can and should be learned and taught to others. 

In designing your approach, consider the importance of learning effective coaching to ensure that your managers are not reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves.

Wanting to create a coaching culture in your organization?  I’d love to have a conversation with you.  Reach out to me at

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