Less managers, more coaches

A growing body of scientific evidence concludes that by enacting a single mindset shift within an organization, employees will: demonstrate increased performance, be more engaged and energized at work, report higher levels of job satisfaction, achieve faster progress towards their goals, have a higher commitment to excellence, and be happier at work.

That one mindset shift? Turning managers from supervisors to coaches.

Yet in many businesses today, coaching is not the default behavior. Instead, managers are focused on control, adherence to rules, regulations, and procedures within the organization.

Why is something that is so clearly the winning move not fully embraced in every single organization?

Management was designed to control

The word “manage” comes from the Italian word “maneggiare”, to handle and control a horse.

Historically, management was tasked with scientifically evaluating the worker’s role, carving up complex processes into smaller, specialized tasks. Managers documented the “one right way” to do the job and ensured workers complied with these instructions.

Frederick Taylor documents this approach in The Principles of Scientific Management, considered by many to be the most influential management book of the 20th century:

This one best method and best implement can only be discovered or developed through a scientific study and analysis of all of the methods and implements in use, together with accurate, minute, motion and time study.

Taylor and his stopwatch revolutionized productivity in industrial environments.

But knowledge work is not the same as industrial work; there’s no “one right way” to solve the problems of the future.

The problems of the future are wicked and require new ways of thinking.

The rise of wicked problems

As the world becomes increasingly volatile, uncertain, interconnected and ambiguous, organizations are facing more “wicked problems” that are difficult or impossible to solve due to incomplete, contradictory, or shifting requirements.

There is no longer “one right way” to solve our problems, and our past experiences are less relevant to future problems. Wicked problems are unique; we must play and explore to uncover their levers and structure. Wicked problems are unpredictable; we don’t know how a solution will pan out until we can measure the customer behavior changes on production. Yet many of our management practices are still rooted in the traditional, “one right way” approach. Managers still believe they can define the strategy and have their employees execute on the strategy they defined.

But they’re wrong. Managers are simply not equipped to gather the proper context of a wicked problem, the magnitude of which requires entire teams of people to investigate. And without the proper context, the “one right way” they formulate is often incomplete, inaccurate, or contradictory.

Managers need to focus less on skill-based competency training and instead advance the thinking capabilities of their employees. By unlocking higher levels of cognitive development, individuals will be able to think about wicked problems in more complex ways, connect more dots, and achieve greater results.

There’s one catch: to achieve these new levels of cognitive growth, individuals must be themselves motivated to make the change; research has shown that cognitive vertical development cannot be forced by a manager. Employees need to be empowered to discover specific, actionable improvements they want to make, and management needs to help guide employees on their learning journey.

This transition is best accomplished by thinking about managers as coaches.

And by making this transition, we’ll increase employee engagement and performance.

The impact of managers as coaches

According to a study by researchers Richard Ladyshewsky and Ross Taplin of the Curtin Business School, managers who focus on coaching positively impact their employee’s levels of work engagement.

To measure this, the researchers applied two leading measurement tools: the Measurement Model of Coaching Skills (MMCS) and the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES).

The Measurement Model of Coaching Skills defines effective managerial coaching across five dimensions:

The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale defines employee engagement across three dimensions:

The researchers surveyed 195 MBA students with work experience and asked them to answer questions from both measurement systems.

The manager’s coaching behavior made a significant positive impact: 28% of self-rated positive work engagement was explained by effective coaching from managers.

The results are clear: to increase employee engagement, businesses should invest in training and development to help managers become effective coaches.

The way you coach matters

If coaching leads to higher engagement, one would assume that the time and amount of feedback provided by the manager would make the greatest impact. That more feedback — and more time spent providing feedback — would lead to higher employee performance. More feedback is always better, right?

To determine the best coaching style for increasing employee performance, Gartner interviewed thousands of employees in a multiyear study. Four distinct coaching profiles emerged from the research:

From the research, one clear winner emerged: Connectors. Employees of connector managers were three times as likely to be high performers. And it wasn’t just performance; connectors won across every measurable outcome:

Our research shows that employees who report to managers who coach effectively are 40% more engaged, exhibit 38% more discretionary effort and are 20% more likely to stay at their organizations than those who report to ineffective coaches.

In addition, the researchers found no connection between the amount of time a manager spent on coaching and employee performance:

Whether a manager spends 36% or 9% of her time on employee development doesn’t seem to matter. “There is very little correlation between time spent coaching and employee performance.”

Surprising to many, one coaching style actually decreased performance: always-on managers. Always-on managers did more harm than good.

Always-on managers provided too much feedback, overwhelming and distracting the employee. And the feedback was often flat out wrong; always-on managers gave feedback for everything, even in areas they didn’t know enough about to coach effectively.

Manager types

The transition from managing to coaching

We’re still in the early days of defining the new optimal organizational structure for knowledge work, but based on this research and from my personal experiences, I strongly believe that coaching, not managing, is a key mindset shift in the future of work.

As a senior product designer at three fast-growing startups, I got up close and personal with many wicked problems across a range of industries. And while our teams always made significant business impact, I was always left with a nagging, unsatisfied feeling that there’s more we could do, that there is another gear of untapped potential just waiting to be unlocked within the team.

My cognitive growth was fostered not in the workplace but in my free time out of the office, with books like Thinking Fast and Slow helping unlock new ways of thinking about complex problems and leading to key product insights. But learning new behavioral design strategies shouldn’t be isolated to nights and weekends; our work environments should encourage and empower employees to develop their cognitive capabilities at work, providing time and space for deep research and thinking through personalized learning journeys.

Empowering employees to solve wicked problems through coaching will lead to bigger wins and better outcomes for knowledge-based organizations. It will foster more engaged and fulfilled employees.

And it will make us all do our best work together.