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If you want to be a better supervisor, think like a coach

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: January 11
  • Published January 11

If you’ve competed individually or on a team with a coach’s guidance, you’ve felt firsthand what it meant to work with a coach who believed in you. When your coach said, “you can do more,” you dug deep into yourself and accomplished results beyond those you had believed possible. Coaches help players optimize their performance.

If you supervise employees and already interact with them as a coach, not “managing” them but providing employees with the skills and tools they need to increase their proficiency and grow their careers, you may not need this article. You already function as a coach, engaging and enabling employees, increasing their job satisfaction and morale. You help your employees put setbacks into perspective and move forward again, a necessary support during challenging times such as those we experience with COVID-19.

If, however, your employees relate to you as a “command and control” supervisor who “manages” them, imagine the difference it might make if they saw you as a coach. When coaches say, “do that differently,” players listen. They trust their coach. They follow the coach’s counsel. When a supervisor says, “try that another way,” at least some employees bristle.

Why? Sometimes it’s because the supervisor micromanages or leaves employees to sink or swim. At other times, the problem stems from how employees relate to those in authority, placing supervisors on the wrong side of an “us” versus “them” rift. What happens differently when employees relate to the supervisor as a coach? These employees know that they and their supervisor play on the same team and share the same goals.

If you’re a supervisor who wants to change from a “them” to a coach, here’s how:

Coaching begins with what each employee needs and where the employee wants to grow. A coach asks, “What skills or capabilities do you need to feel more successful in your current assignments?” and “In what areas do you want to grow to better achieve your professional and career goals?”

Supervisors speak up when there’s a problem and can be stingy with positive comments. In contrast, coaches give pep talks and look for opportunities to recognize employees for strong performance and extra effort. Coaching comments such as “that’s good work” and “that’s a great idea” mean a lot. Most employees want to hear what they’re doing well and where they need to improve.

Coaching isn’t a one-size-fits all program. Some employees need more instruction and constructive correction than others. Other employees respond better if they’re provided challenging assignments and a sounding board when they run into a snag.

While you might be tempted to take over part or all of an employee’s project that’s moving slowly or in the wrong direction, remember that employees learn through experience. Coaches don’t take over a player’s position on the field.

Coaches respect employees by asking for their thoughts with questions such as, “What needs to change in our team meetings?”; “If you were managing the team, what would you do differently?”; or “What is one thing I could experiment with doing differently?”

What if employees don’t provide you with suggestions? It’s not enough to tell employees you have an open door. Based on past experiences with other supervisors, many employees won’t walk in. Reach out to them; lean out your open door with an inviting hand stretched forward until your employees learn they can voice their thoughts without penalty.

Finally, make sure you’re a coach that employees can trust by taking a trust audit. Give your employees the opportunity to anonymously rate you on a scale of 0 to 7 in these areas:

This supervisor:

-Is a straight shooter who communicates honestly and openly.

-Supports us and has our backs.

-Follows through on what s/he commits to.

-Walks his/her talk.

-Keeps us in the know about what’s going on in the organization.

-Is fair.

-Respects us by asking us for our ideas.

What if you receive low scores? Immediately address the pinpointed deficits. You may need coaching.