So, what is this thing they call coaching?

This post explores the concept of workplace coaching – what it is, the benefits, when to coach and how to get started.

This will be a broad overview, for those new to management, new to coaching, or those who have neglected this great skill for a while!

Particularly for those new to management, the word ‘coaching’ can be a little daunting. Other managers throw around the word, they say they coach their team regularly. They seem so confident. As a new manager, does someone sit you down to explain what coaching is or how to do it? Generally not. So you organise weekly meetings with your team members, get them to update you, tell them where they could improve and share your expertise – see, you’re coaching…aren’t you? Probably not.

Here are some key points for new managers to start growing their understanding of coaching.

What is coaching?

  • Coaching can be a way of managing and leading (i.e. it doesn’t have to be rolled out on special occasions!).
  • Coaching and mentoring are different. Whereas a mentor tends to be an expert on what’s being discussed, and shares their knowledge and experience, a coach does not have to be the expert necessarily and they share less of their own ideas. A coach guides a discussion so that someone else can think about what works for them in their unique situation.
  • Coaching is more ask vs tell, whereas mentoring tends to be more tell.
  • As a manager, you will likely do a mix of coaching and mentoring, because you may indeed be an expert in the discussion. However as a leader hopes to build other leaders, if managers pull back a bit from showing they are the expert, there will be major benefits to their team, and its performance.
  • Management by coaching may be informal and used frequently in communicating with staff e.g. problem solving, briefing and debriefing projects, feedback discussions, informal skill development.
  • Coaching can also be formal and structured as required e.g. career exploration, formal skill development.
  • A foundational element to coaching is asking great questions.
  • Through questions, a coach helps the employee think about the situation and come up with their own answers.
  • Coaching questions help raise awareness in the coachee and ultimately guide them to  take responsibility for choices and actions.
  • Beyond questions, a coach also needs to create the right environment for effective discussions – being present, listening, empathising, carefully challenging and bringing context.

What are the benefits of coaching?

“One cannot teach a man anything. One can only enable him to learn from within himself.” — Galileo Galilei

Humans generally don’t like being told what to do. We like to have some form of autonomy and choice. We like to feel that we have some control over our environment and the world we navigate. Even a perceived sense of choice can be enough – so we might need to still do something a certain way, yet being asked our thoughts on the process, we feel a bit more involved and like we have some autonomy.

Even if all we can choose is our attitude!

How does that relate to coaching? Well, coaching in essence is not telling people what to do. It’s more ask and less tell. For example, we would rather ask someone how they think they should proceed with a task, than tell them how to. Getting them to think about it is the key. Yes, there will be times where you need to instruct, yet even then you can ask a question – “How comfortable do you feel with this process?” or “What else do you need from me to support you?”

When someone comes up with their own options and answers, they feel more in control and engaged with the situation. And are more likely to follow through with actions, because they have taken ownership.

  • Coaching helps develop employees and encourages application and retention of skills.
  • Ultimately staff who are coached can enhance performance and improve productivity.
  • As your staff develop their skills and confidence, and own their actions,  it will save you time – less chasing and instructing!
  • People who are coached generally feel more valued than those who are not.

Is it only about questions?

No, it’s not. The foundational principle requires the coachee to take ownership and be accountable – for their actions and words. Questions are instrumental to this, as they encourage the coachee to think for themselves and make decisions. It may result in them choosing to change behaviours, taking certain actions or challenging their thinking.

Beyond questions, a coach also needs to create the right environment for effective discussions – being present, listening, empathising, carefully challenging and bringing context. Engage with your employee and truly listen!

I like to refer to the core elements of coaching as:

Connect – through questions.

Care – by listening.

Challenge – through questions.

Cheer – because you care.



What if I need to ‘tell’ (instead of ask)?

Of course, management by coaching may also involve situations where you do provide advice or instruction. The balance of ‘ask’ vs. ‘tell’ will depend on the level of motivation and skill of the individual. It can also depend on the urgency or context of a situation. This is where your judgement comes in!

Unless in an urgent situation, when you think more ‘tell’ is needed, hold off and ask a question or two first e.g. “How do you think we could approach this?” You never know, you might have made an incorrect assumption about the level of ‘tell’ required. When I coach managers I tend to find that when they think they need to tell, they usually don’t!

Ok, I am a question fanatic! So if you do need to do some ‘tell’, always follow with a question to involve the employee e.g. “What other options do you see?”

When should I be coaching?

As you practice your coaching skills, you will realise that most discussions with staff will be enhanced through coaching questions – engaging them in the discussion, presentation, or decision-making.

Try starting with the regular one-on-one meetings you have with your team members. If they are updating you, ask them questions e.g. “What’s going well on this project?”, “What are the major challenges you’ve faced?”, “What are your next steps?”

Try questions when an employee comes to you with a problem. Instead of solving it for them, see if they can solve it themselves! e.g. “What are your options for dealing with this?”

When a team member asks you for feedback on something they have done – ask for their input first e.g. “What do you think you did well?”,“What could you have done differently?” It’s ok to then provide your own feedback – having their input first is important.

Is there a structure I should use?

At Engage Your Healthcare Leadership, we use a simple model that is designed to help move from objective through to action. The conversation can’t really be productive if it is a thousand questions fired at someone – it needs to move in a positive direction towards an outcome – a decision or action.

If you find following a structure difficult at first, just start by asking open questions with the aim of truly understanding a situation and the employee’s perspective. Open coaching questions are commonly those beginning with “What”, although other starters like “When”, “How” or “Which” may be used.

Like the sound of coaching?

Want to learn even more about this powerful management and leadership approach?

If you are finding it challenging to ask questions, or get your team onboard with your approach, don’t worry! It takes a little effort and time yet you’ll get there in the end! If you’d like to fast track things and get some support, then our Members Community has lots of resources to help. We have training modules on coaching, our model/framework to make it easier, cheat sheets to give you some tips and questions, and also forums where you can ask for help from other managers and our expert facilitators. Click here to learn more.

Coaching is an exciting, fulfilling and efficient way of enhancing your management style. As you understand and practice, it becomes a way of managing and leading with great results.


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