Skip to main content

10 Essential Coaching Skills for Managers

By September 20, 2023December 15th, 2023No Comments
Coaching Skills for Managers

As a manager, why should you coach?

Maybe you love helping people grow. Or helping them succeed.

Both fair answers. But what’s in it for the manager?

At first glance, a lot of unlearning old ways to lead – and embracing some new habits.

Coaching and being more coach-like means new behaviors, and stepping away from some familiar ways of showing up – giving advice, knowing the answer, saving the day, and using authority.

Letting go of these habits is difficult, but also liberating. Because when you start coaching, sure, you help your people succeed. But you also unlock your own greatness, too.

Here’s why.

The Greatest Answers Come From the Greatest Questions

Become a better leader. Better teacher. Better person.

Learn how to ask the right questions the right way with this free download.

Eight Ways to Ask a Question Well

Why Coaching Is All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Most of us have had a whole lot of practice being rewarded, encouraged, promoted, and paid to be advice-givers.

On top of that, when you’re in the position of giving advice, it’s a way more comfortable place to be than asking a coaching question. When you have the answer, you have a sense of status and control – you feel like you’re adding value.

But when you start coaching and asking questions, your ego takes a hit. Even though your advice may not be that good or useful or listened to, it still feels better to give it – at least in the short term.

However, in the long term, you’re reinforcing a culture of overdependence – your team is scared to make decisions without you, you’re constantly in rescuer mode, and you have no time to think about the bigger picture.

Coaching is the antidote to that. When you learn how to coach, you stop being a bottleneck for your team. You create more autonomy, independence, and confidence in your people. You carve more time and space out for yourself, so you can focus on the stuff that matters.

In essence, you build an effective team, get to work less hard, and have more impact.

But I Don’t Have Time to Coach!

This has been the proverbial struggle of managers for eons. Even while affirming the value of coaching in his influential Harvard Business Review article, Daniel Goleman shrugged his shoulders and said, “Many told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.”

A decade later, a report called The Coaching Conundrum cited “no time, no time” as the biggest barrier to why managers don’t coach.

And it feels like we’ve only gotten busier since then.

On the one hand, people are right. Nobody has time for coaching if you believe that manager coaching and executive coaching are similar.

Executive coaches typically have the luxury of showing up regularly – once or twice a month – and having a focused hour with their clients. But it turns out that that’s a terrible role model for most managers.

Luckily, effective coaching is an informal everyday interaction that should take 10 minutes or less. You can coach almost anywhere – in person, over the phone, over Zoom, or on Slack.

And the best part is, when you coach in this way, not only is it quick, but it helps your people learn, and in learning they become better able to be autonomous, creative, and engaged, while you get to focus more on the stuff that matters.

So, don’t try to add coaching to your manager role. Instead, transform what you already do to become more coach-like.

Here’s how to do it.

10 Great Coaching Skills for Leaders and Managers

If you’ve got 10 minutes and you’re ready to change the way you lead for the better, these 10 coaching skills will help you embed coaching into your everyday interactions.

1. Stay Curious for Longer

In a word, becoming more coach-like is all about embracing curiosity. In fact, if The Coaching Habit were a Haiku, it would be this:

Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.

Curiosity is the antithesis of advice-giving. Instead of leaping in to fix things when someone comes to you with a problem, get curious and help them find their own answer.

Questions are the fuel of curiosity. In The Coaching Habit, I dive into the seven must-know coaching questions you need to fire up your curiosity.

Here’s a quick snapshot:

  • “What’s on your mind?”
  • “And what else?”
  • “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
  • “What do you (really) want (from me)?”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
  • “What was most useful for you?”

2. Listen More, Advise Less

By now, you’ll get that I’m not big on giving advice. I even wrote a book about it – The Advice Trap.

Unfortunately, most of us are advice-giving maniacs. We love telling people what to do. But here’s the problem – your advice is almost never as good as you think it is.

First off, the initial problem someone presents is almost never the real problem. This means managers often jump in to solve the wrong challenge, without ever actually uncovering the real issue.

On top of that, when you engage with others by leaping in to help, it actually has the opposite effect. It doesn’t empower them. It diminishes them. You’re telling your people – subconsciously – that they can’t figure challenges out for themselves.

Culturally, this has a terrible impact. Over time, your people will feel discouraged, less engaged, less creative, less competent, and all the more dependent on you.

Now, I don’t mean that you have to forever give up offering advice or giving someone an idea.

But you should hit the pause button before you rush into your default reaction. Instead, listen intently and stay curious.

3. Become Comfortable With Ambiguity

One of the deeper leadership skills to master when becoming more coach-like is getting comfortable with ambiguity. When you’re giving an answer, you have certainty, you know where the conversation is going and you know that you are the smart person in the discussion.

As soon as you ask a question, it’s a much more ambiguous state. You hand over control to the other person, and now they are responsible for the answer.

Effectively, you’ve given up status, rank, certainty, control, and power. It is a microcosm of what servant leadership is – putting the other person’s goals and capacities ahead of your own level of comfort. It’s really the essence of what empowerment is. After all, when you empower somebody, it inherently means you have a diminished sense of power.

This process can be really challenging for our egos, but that’s how you nurture a more self-sufficient, confident team.

4. Be Generous With Silence (Learn to Really Listen)

So, you’ve caught yourself before you jumped in to give advice and asked a question instead– great work!

But then… crickets.

So here’s the next trick – be generous with that silence.

I won’t lie, it’s going to feel uncomfortable. Your inner monologue will go into overdrive, and it will take a lot to not chime in with a nugget of wisdom. But that period of silence is actually the sound of the person you’re talking to forming new neural pathways in their brain.

Your question has got them thinking and contemplating. They’re learning, and in doing so literally increasing their potential and capacity.

So, ask the question, then shut up. Don’t let your discomfort with a heartbeat or two of awkwardness get in the way of them having the space to think about and answer the question. They’ll nearly always fill the silence for you.

5. Practice Fierce Love

The reason why I sign off my newsletter with the phrase, “You’re awesome and you’re doing great” is because it tells people that, whatever they’re up against, whatever is easy or hard for them right now, they are infinitely worthy.

This way of assuming positive intent is a really powerful and generous gift that all coach-like managers should practice. By seeing the best in your people, you help them see the best in themselves.

But that’s not to say that you should be nice all the time. Instead, aim to be kind. I call this practicing fierce love, and it’s my underlying philosophy for coaching employees.

Fierce love isn’t about wrapping the other person up in a warm, cozy blanket. It’s about pushing and challenging them to be the best versions of themselves.

It’s about being brave enough to say the hard truths, but saying them in a way that is loving and caring – not as punishment, but to help them grow.

If you can embody fierce love at work – believing in your team, supporting them wholeheartedly, stretching them to be the best they can be – you’ll become not just a great manager, but a great leader. 

6. Cut the Intro (And Ask the Question)

Over the years, I’ve noticed one of the key marks of a great coach is their ability to get to the heart of an issue quickly. And if there’s one great opening question that will get you there most of the time, it’s: “What’s on your mind?”

When you ask this question, it gives the person you’re asking the choice of what to talk about. In addition, you’re playing to three of Daniel Pink’s key motivational drivers – autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy, because you’re asking them to make the choice rather than telling them what to do. Mastery, because you’re inviting them to decide what matters most. And purpose, because you’re giving them the opportunity to focus on the stuff that truly matters.

Here’s an idea. Blow up the agenda of your usual one-to-one meetings with your manager, and begin by asking, “What’s on your mind?”

You’ll be surprised to see where the conversation goes.

7. Say No and Yes More Strategically

Part of becoming a great manager is learning how to help you and your people focus on doing more great work.

This type of work is a beautiful confluence of your team’s strengths, interests, and values. It takes you all to the edge of what you know and contributes more to the world than it takes.

Unfortunately, a lot of teams are stuck in the mud with bad work. You know the kind – meetings that should’ve been emails, pointless processes, tasks that drain time and energy.

To help your team do more great work, you need to take a broad perspective. Try to see the overarching goals that loom above your team’s daily tasks. Ask yourself – what are the essential priorities? What actions will bring the greatest value? And, conversely, what can be disregarded?

Then, you can decide what to say yes to, but also, more importantly, what to say no to.

Undoubtedly, this can be scary. Saying no is often unpleasant, even for managers. But by mastering the art of saying no, you can steer yourself and your team toward more great work and less bad work.

8. Make Sure Relationships Are Safe, Vital, and Repairable

Great coaches build working relationships that are safe, vital, and repairable—a concept you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Safety relates to psychological safety, which is about creating an atmosphere where people feel secure and valued at work.

But here’s the other side of the coin – vitality. Every relationship should be dynamic, not just essential. Most people want their managers to motivate them, to push them to think bigger.

Safety and vitality often dance with each other. Push safety too far, and you might end up with a relationship that’s overly sheltered, and resistant to growth.

Push too hard in the other direction, and things could get uncomfortable. Yet, right in the middle, where psychological courage and safety harmonize, that’s where people flourish.

This is where fierce love comes in. As a manager, if you can guide your people to the edge of their abilities and confidence, you’ll help them become braver, more determined, and more engaged.

Lastly, repairability is about committing to fix the cracks as they arise.

All relationships, workplace and otherwise, will go through hard times. Great managers don’t let small mistakes or misunderstandings ruin their workplace relationships. They apologize and forgive when things go wrong.

9. Radiate What You Want From Your People

If you’ve ever been around someone in a bad mood, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of catching their emotional state. The good news is that, as a manager, you can use this to your advantage.

If you’re conscious of interacting with your people from a space of curiosity, vulnerability, and empathy, they’ll return it to you in kind, and your working relationships will flourish.

A simple way to start doing this is by noticing and celebrating each team member’s progress. You don’t have to go buy a bottle of Möet every time someone gets promoted or hits their targets (although if you’ve got the means then go ahead), but a small fist bump or congratulations over email will do wonders.

10. Understand Your Team’s Working Styles

Every individual requires a unique balance between psychological bravery and psychological safety to thrive at work. I, myself, need more bravery than safety. I like to be challenged, pushed, and provoked – it fuels me to explore new ideas and stretch myself.

To discover what works best for each member of your team, you’ll want to gain clarity on who they are and how they view your relationship.

The most effective way to do this is through what I call the Keystone Conversation – a discussion that helps you communicate better with the person across from you, bringing you closer to the truth of their story and to the humanity of that person.

You can learn more about how to have the Keystone Conversation in How to Work With (Almost) Anyone, but here are a few simple questions to get you started:

  • What does it look like when you’re working at your best?
  • What are your practices and preferences?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?

Practice Your Coaching Skills. For Them. And for You.

Being a coach is about way more than unlocking the greatness of your people. It’s about unlocking your greatness too and finding strengths that match it.

So, stay curious, be generous with silence, and commit to practicing fierce love. Your team and your company will thank you for it.

And, if you’re hungry for more, you can dive deeper into the seven coaching questions in my book, The Coaching Habit. Get it here.

Or pick up The Advice Trap and work on taming your Advice Monster. Get it here.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.