How to help managers have quality coaching conversations

“When your manager cancels your one to one meeting, the underlying message is that the other task or thing that they feel needs to be urgently addressed is more important than you, a human being.”

Listening to employees’ feedback in a focus group to explore what makes a great manager for them, I was struck at how devastating the impact can be when managers fail to embrace the people management element of their role. In stressful, highly pressurised work environments, one to one catch ups with managers are often the first thing to get postponed and it leaves people feeling utterly devalued.

Quality conversations with managers provide such a valuable platform for discussing performance feedback, development opportunities, career aspirations, and, oh yes, how the person actually is! Despite this, 32% of employees surveyed by Office Vibe say they have to wait more than 3 months to get feedback from their managers, and 64% believe the quality of the feedback could be improved.

So what’s going on here? Having analysed employee survey data over the last 10 years, it seems to me that there are broadly five categories of manager, although this list is by no means exhaustive:

  1. The disinterested: Those who are not interested in people management and are likely to have been promoted on strong technical abilities.
  2. The overwhelmed: Managers with good intentions but who are stretched so thin, or who have too many direct reports to be able to do their job properly.
  3. Control seekers: Micro-managers who aren’t able to trust their team to do the job. These managers end up doing the jobs of their direct reports instead of managing.
  4. Task tacklers: Regular one to ones are held but the predominant focus is on the weekly tasks to be done, targets to be hit and problems to be solved i.e. working through the nuts and bolts of the job.
  5. Coaches: The relationship with a coaching manager is more human, they ask lots of questions, they help secure development opportunities with the right level of stretch and they can motivate and inspire their direct reports. ‘Coaching’ managers have significantly higher levels of engagement in their teams, with positive outcomes for productivity, customer satisfaction, retention and wellbeing.

When faced with low survey scores for managers’ people management capability, leadership teams and HR often turn to manager training as a solution. BUT a half day workshop or a simple guide on giving feedback is not going to be enough to help managers become coaches.

If coaching conversations are not something you’re used to, it’s incredibly daunting to deliver them. Managers need to feel prepared for the responses they might get when they start asking lots of questions. And delivering specific, constructive feedback isn’t an easy skill either. ‘Could you just be more like Alex?’ is one such unfortunate example I came across of a manager trying to explain how their direct report could improve.

Here are some effective approaches organisations have implemented to bolster people management skills:

  • To start with, managers need to experience coaching themselves, meaning that leaders should be role modelling the expected standard, helping managers to get used to receiving and acting on feedback and dealing with emotions.
  • Ensure job descriptions and performance objectives reflect what a great manager looks like for your organisation.
  • Split career paths i.e. technical vs. people management career paths are a great way of ensuring that the right people are in the right roles. People Managers should want to people manage.
  • Provide training that gets managers out of their comfort zone. Because they most likely will be in some of their coaching conversations.
  • Use 360 feedback or manager reporting from employee surveys to give managers specific feedback from their team on their managerial style.
  • Encourage a balance between formal and informal meetings. The latter could be a 20 minute walk around the office or a coffee catch-up, with a follow-up email to summarise discussion points.



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