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Coaching Employees: Strategies for Coach-Like Leadership

By June 7, 2023December 22nd, 2023No Comments
How to coach employees

Coaching is kind of like Vegemite – it’s an acquired taste, and one that a lot of people shy away from.

And like Vegemite, most people are reluctant about coaching not because they don’t like it, but because they haven’t tried it (and don’t understand it). That’s fair. Coaching comes with a bit of baggage – too touchy-feely, it’s only for people who are failing, you have to be a “people person” to do it, and more.

This is especially true in the workplace, where managers resist coaching employees and stick with standard managerial conversations, like telling people how to do their jobs and then reviewing their performance.

But the truth is that becoming more coach-like doesn’t mean becoming some sort of business guru. It’s not an esoteric spiritual journey. And it’s not a means of improving your drop shot.

Coaching employees in the workplace (and subsequently becoming more coach-like), is simply about staying curious longer, asking questions, and improving communication between your team members.

What Coaching Isn’t

There are a bunch of different types of coaches out there, all of whom have muddled the definition of coaching skills in the workplace.

Between life coaches (finding your purpose), sports coaches (improving your serve), and specialist coaches (figuring out how best to manage a neurodivergence, for example), the specifics of workplace coaching somehow got lost in translation.

None of these are the kind of coaching I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about becoming coach-like – communicating in a way that helps people find their own solutions and grow as individuals. It turns the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue.

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What’s With the Resistance?

In 2000, Daniel Goleman, the psychologist, and journalist who popularized emotional intelligence, wrote an article titled Leadership That Gets Results for Harvard Business Review.

In it, he outlined six key leadership styles. Out of those, coaching leadership style was proven to have a “markedly positive” impact on culture, improving work performance, and the bottom line.

Great start there — but it turns out that, even though it was one of the most influential leadership approaches, it was also one of the least-used.

“Many leaders 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,” Goleman wrote.

Now that was in 2000. Here we are over two decades later, and coaching still isn’t happening at scale. Why?

In my book The Coaching Habit, I talk about the five resistances to embracing a coaching culture. They all seem like valid reasons, but I have a strong counter to each one that I hope will give you the confidence to start coaching employees more often in your daily work.

Maybe one of these sounds like you:

1. I Don’t Have the Time

A lot of people think coaching takes half an hour or even an hour – and nobody has time for that!

On top of that, it’s overwhelming to think about engaging in one-hour coaching sessions with everybody on your team.

But the truth is that coaching can be done in 10 minutes or less. It can happen really fast. You have the time.

2. I’m Overcommitted With Tasks and Projects

You’re incredibly busy, which makes it impossible to think about how you might add coaching to what you’re already doing.

But becoming coach-like isn’t about adding coaching to what you’re doing. That’s like pouring water into a full glass! It doesn’t help anybody.

It’s about transforming what you currently do, not as an add-on but in terms of a leadership approach.

3. I Don’t Want to Be a Coach

You’re an engineer, marketer, or salesperson and don’t want this new label.

Listen, I get it.

It’s really fair not to want to be a coach, but coaching doesn’t have to be an identity. It’s a practical tool for regular people in the workplace. It’s not a role. It’s a behavior. 

4. I Don’t Know What Coaching Is

You’ve got all of these different role models, and coaching was talked about a lot, but you need clarification on what it actually is.

Here’s a precise definition of coaching for those out there who aren’t sure what it is. It’s all about a mindset shift: ‘Stay curious for longer, rush to action, and give advice more slowly‘.

5. I’m Not Sure What’s in It for Me

That’s a fair perspective – after all, why spend a bunch of time doing something if the outcome is going to be neutral or net negative?

But here’s what being more coach-like will do for you – you get to work less hard and have more impact.

You get to break out of the three vicious cycles that plague our workplaces:

  • Creating overdependence
  • Getting overwhelmed
  • Becoming disconnected

In essence, you get to motivate employees and help them unlock their potential and do more great work.

Being Coach-Like Is About Embracing Curiosity

Being coach-like is simpler than you think. In a word, it’s about curiosity. It’s an everyday way of showing up and staying curious a little bit longer about the people and situations you encounter.

We’ve been trained to leap in with advice, opinions, and solutions. Becoming coach-like is simply about trying to slow that down. There’s a time and place for advice, but it’s always a little later in a conversation than you think.

When you embrace curiosity, you start to manage people in a way that liberates and encourages them. It’s brilliant for them and for you.

But simple doesn’t mean easy. Changing old ways of behaving is hard, right? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s decided to take proper lunch breaks, only to find myself at my laptop eating a sandwich with one hand and typing emails with the other.

So, know that building the habit of curiosity takes time, practice, and commitment. You’ll fall off the horse repeatedly, but keep getting back on every time until your habit becomes instinctive.

Ready, Set, Coach!

By now, I hope you’re eager to unlock the best in yourself and build an effective team. Here’s how to start incorporating an effective coaching mindset into your day-to-day work life:

1. Tame Your Advice Monster

Most people are advice-giving maniacs – this is a concept I explore in detail in my book, The Advice Trap.

They love to tell people what to do. But it also turns out that, in general, advice-giving is an overdeveloped and less effective way of managing and leading than you might think.

Now, I’m not saying, “Never give advice”. But here’s why you should move to advice-giving more slowly:

  1. We often get seduced into something that the first thing somebody tells us is the real challenge that needs to be solved. We’re too quick off the mark and try to solve the wrong challenge when, really, the real problem is buried a little deeper.
  2. People’s advice is rarely as good as they think. Often, you get people offering up slightly crappy advice to solve the wrong problem.
  3. Even if you’ve got the right problem and your advice is amazing, there’s a dynamic that’s playing out – you’re training the people you’re leading and managing to come to you for advice, rather than helping them become more self-sufficient, more confident and more able to work by themselves.

If you can rush to give advice more slowly, it means that when it is time to share an opinion, insight, or advice, it is likely to be more specific, relevant, and valuable.

2. Stay Curious for Longer

The most powerful leadership skill is not providing answers but asking the right questions.

Powerful questions give the people you work with the opportunity to learn, grow, and get smarter.

Now, not all questions are created equal. In my book, The Coaching Habit, I discuss the seven essential questions you need to be more coach-like and effective as a manager.

They go a little something like this:

  • “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?”

Mastering these questions will also uncover how to become a great leader, who takes their organization forward.

3. Try to Be of Service

In the middle of that list, you’ll see one of my favorite questions at the moment: “How can I help?”

It’s one of the great questions that you can ask to start immediately becoming more coach-like. This simple question really helps you lean into curiosity. Rather than assuming you know what’s needed by the other person, it allows you to be of service.

More powerful still, it forces an explicit request to be made. “How can I help?” or its blunter cousin, “What do you want from me?” lays down the gauntlet and says: “Make your request loud and clear so that I can say yes or no or maybe!”

4. Get Comfortable With Silence

Ok, so you asked a question, and then…Silence.

Here’s the next trick – be quiet.

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. Ask the question, then shut up.

Your inner monologue might say: “Oh my goodness, they’re under pressure and don’t have an answer.”

Actually, what’s probably happening is just somebody processing the question and having a think. And they’ll appreciate you giving them a little space and time to actually figure out their answer.

5. Realize That Every Interaction Can Be More Coach-Like

In my book, The Advice Trap, I propose that coaching should occur more often.

If I do say so myself (and I do), it’s slyly one of my most radical principles. It dispels the idea that coaching is an occasional, hierarchical, formal event.


Because every interaction can be a bit more coach-like. It’s just a question of staying curious a little bit longer.

You can be more coach-like in meetings, on the phone, by text, on Slack – by pretty much any channel of communication. Your job is simply to keep being curious.

6. Be the Strongest Signal In the Room

People will respond to you with the same energy that you put out to them. Being the strongest signal in the room means holding a space that is full of curiosity, celebration, vulnerability, and action.

You need to become a role model. Radiate curiosity, warmth, and openness. People will respond to it in kind, and you’ll get the best from them.

A huge part of this is also celebrating your team’s wins and progress. If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you may have noticed that I love the phrase: “You’re awesome and you’re doing great.” To me, it says wherever you are in the process, whether things are going well or bad, I see that you’re trying, and I believe in you.

It’s a way of assuming positive intent and helping people know I see them. You can do the same with your team. Embody compassion and empathy, and watch the curtains open for deeper, more productive dialogue.

7. Carve Out Learning Moments

At the end of any coach-like conversation, you’ll want to create the space for people to have those learning moments.

A period where they can reflect, consolidate their thoughts, and reflect on any new knowledge gleaned.

To do that, you need a question.

And a really great question is, “What was most useful for you?”

“What was most useful here for you?” is a powerful and positive way to finish a conversation.

Not only do you help people to see and then embed the learning from the conversation, but by ending on a “this was useful” note, people are going to remember the experience more favorably than they otherwise might.

Curiosity Is a Superpower: Harness It

Staying curious longer is the secret to working less hard and having more influence.

It’s a concept that is at the heart of my book The Coaching Habit, one that will help you make more of your interactions coach-like in nature.

Get your copy here, and dive deep into the seven essential questions that will help you build your curiosity into a powerful, everyday habit.

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.