Thursday, 3 May 2012

How can managers play a positive part in a coaching relationship?

Coaching at work has become more common as a way to develop employees and improve performance. These coaches are often specialists from another function or from outside the organisation. Yet there is another person with stakes in the employee's developmental priorities... their line manager. To date, there has been little scrutiny of how they affect the coaching process, but a new study helps clarify the role of this third party.

Helen Ogilvy and Vicky Ellam-Dyson's study performed semi-structured interviews with 18 coachees (those receiving coaching) and 12 of their line managers, then coded this content using content analysis, separating ideas into meaningful categories. They found that managers that valued coaching and understood how it worked were seen as more likely to be involved in the process, either by bringing up the coaching in conversation (formally or informally) or through general focus on development steps. The ways in which they were seen as helpful included

  •  supporting - such as listening, encouraging and offering reassurance
  • informing - in particular, providing feedback on performance that could then be discussed within a coaching setting
  • being open and giving the coachee space
  • demonstrating a coaching style that reinforced the scheduled coaching sessions
  • challenge - of limiting beliefs, and pressure to experiment and take risks

Conversely what was seen as unhelpful included

  • passive behaviours, such as a disinterest in coaching, or lack of feedback
  • restrictive behaviours such as being critical or not allowing time

Note the fine line between the helpful and unhelpful behaviours: challenge vs criticism, or giving space vs disinterest. Indeed, the interviews identified instances where managers, despite their interest in the process, held off from broaching the topic in the interests of privacy, leaving the coachee feeling neglected. The sense that coaching is a personal process was common to most managers, but shared by only half of the coachees. One takeaway is that it's worth managers asking how they can be involved (if at all) rather than assuming they aren't wanted.

Ogilvy and Ellam-Dyson make other recommendations, including that coaches make an effort to educate managers and coachees of the benefits of management involvement - as well as how to best approach it - and that coachees seek performance feedback ahead of the first coaching session.

A final point: coaching has been charged with producing goals are not tightly enough tied to organisational objectives. It's often assumed this is due to line managers being too hands-off, but this isn't borne out by these data, where regardless of the varied level of management involvement in goal setting, the majority of goals tended to be only indirectly related to business needs, for instance boosting personal effectiveness and aiding career progression. Perhaps this is the outcome of the reflective, non-coercive structure of coaching? Thoughts from practitioners are very welcome.

ResearchBlogging.orgOgilvy, H., & Ellam-Dyson, V. (2012). Line management involvement in coaching: Help or hindrance? A content analysis study International Coaching Psychology Review, 7 (1), 39-53

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