Enabling team development through coaching

Supporting people performance and team development are as much a part of a team leader’s role as minding the business. In fact, in an ideal world, team leaders would spend at least 70% of their time on team coaching. In these days of reduced staff it is not always possible to delegate all task oriented activities, but the more the leader can be a coaching manager, encouraging people to think for themselves, plan ahead and create their own solutions, the more one will see the team working together, rising to the challenge and achieving extraordinary things. Conversely, the more a manager corrects the team and interferes with the team’s decisions (which is about directional management rather than team coaching), the less people will bother to think for themselves, and team development in terms of creativity and people performance will slow down.

Team development: creating possibility

To develop a team to its full potential, the coaching manager must create an environment where people are encouraged to nurture their own ideas, are supported in taking risks, and where mistakes are treated as a learning curve. It should also be a place where people can have some fun! Happily, creating a fun environment is the easiest part of the process, because if people are given the space to develop their own performance, and have the satisfaction of having taken risks, risen to challenges and learned from the outcomes (whether failure or success), then the fun part happens of its own accord.

Looking for rules and instructions on team development is perhaps starting out from the wrong place. A team can only develop itself. The coaching manager’s contribution is to create the space where that can happen and then get out of the way, leading from behind to coach the team members when they need it. This is the secret to successful team development.

The most common resistance to coaching that I hear in organisations is ‘I don’t have time to coach’. There is a misconception that every team activity will take longer because listening to people takes longer than telling them what to do. However, once the time and effort has been put in to learn manager-as-coach skills (which can take as little as a month) the team’s behaviour and relationship with the leader will start to change. If people know that when they approach their manager for guidance, they will be asked to suggest solutions themselves, they will very quickly form the habit of thinking things through before they approach the manager, presenting solutions not problems. The coaching manager will know how to create trust in the relationship, so that team members will not be afraid to call for input when it is required. The coaching manager’s time is then freed up to be spent on visioning, exploring new perspectives and driving the business forward, not to mention improved work-life balance. People performance will look after itself – there is no strain or effort involved in team coaching.

The manager as coach

Over the last decade of training leaders to become coaching managers, I have come to understand that the vast majority of managers aspire to motivate their teams, encourage them, reduce their stress levels and to bring out the very best in terms of people performance. In short, most managers want their teams to be happy as well as productive. In addition, the team leaders aspire to be liked and respected as coaching managers. Where a manager’s performance fails to meet these standards, the reason is usually due to a lack of skill rather than intention.

To take an extreme case, when I have been brought in to ‘fix’ the behaviour of a bully, which has happened on a number of occasions, I have come to the conclusion that, although on a surface level the bully may seem to revel in his or her brutal behaviour, on the inside there exists a person who rather pathetically wishes to be liked. Sadly, such a person has normally learned social skills from other bullies (perhaps parents, teachers or bosses who were a long way from being coaching managers) and has never had the good fortune to work at close quarters with a manager-as-coach role model. The bully struggles to survive what seems to be a minefield of relationships at work in the only way he or she knows how.

The good news is that such people take to manager-as-coach skills like proverbial ducks to water. What manager-as-coach training can teach them are the specific words and phrases to express themselves as the type of coaching manager they would like to be. They learn to understand the true nature of listening, which is not what we think of as listening in normal conversations, and to grasp the rhythm of give and take in the coaching conversation. It is not just a question of understanding the impact that their behaviour has on the people or team working for or around them, but of learning a different way of behaviour to replace conduct that is causing friction.

I am reminded of one team leader on a manager-as-coach course who was so unpopular with his team that everyone tried to avoid sitting next to him. After two days of manager-as-coach training, the group dispersed to practise the skills and regrouped after a month. The team leader humbly (unusually for him) owned that he loved the new coaching way of communication, but that he felt awkward because it was not what people expected of him. One of his team piped up and said, ‘To you it may feel awkward, but please go on doing it, because to us it feels fantastic!’ This not only demonstrated how far this manager had come in terms of his own management performance, but also showed how much the level of trust had risen between himself and his team. In the old days before the manager-as-coach training, no-one would have dared to speak so openly and honestly to him. Six months later, I heard that he had become known in the organisation as ‘the kinder, gentler [name]’, because the difference in all his relationships was so marked.

I have yet to meet anyone who could not become a coaching manager and manage people performance through team coaching. There is nothing complicated or mystical about coaching skills, or indeed about being a coaching manager. In my experience anyone can do it.