How do line managers become more effective coaches? Focus on the Coaching Relationship.

Organisations increasingly expect line managers to add coaching to the ways that they manage their direct reports (“Employee Coaching”). Yet many practitioners and academics view Employee Coaching as a ‘watered-down’ version of coaching. And some organisations have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved by the limited ‘Introduction to Coaching’ training courses that they are willing to fund.

Yes, Employee Coaching does differ from executive and other forms of coaching (such as peer coaching). The most notable difference is the organisational context in which it occurs and the influence that this organisational context has on both parties to the coaching relationship (the “Coaching Relationship”), which results in a more complex, rather than simple, picture.

As a former line manager utilising Employee Coaching with my direct reports (a “Coaching Manager”), and as a current external coach and a trainer of line managers in Employee Coaching, I wanted to explore this Coaching Relationship further. The opportunity arose recently to conduct qualitative interview-based research at a financial institution, as part of an MA in Executive and Business Coaching at Leeds Beckett University. 

Rather than attempting to discover the definitive list of qualities, skills or attributes for the ‘ideal’ coaching manager (if ever one exists!), I wanted to investigate the factors that influenced the quality of the Coaching Relationship.  By understanding these factors, and enhancing the quality of the Coaching Relationship, we have an opportunity to positively impact the outcome of Employee Coaching – something that should appeal to everyone involved in Employee Coaching, from trainers and L&D professionals charged with investing in Employee Coaching, to Coaching Managers and employees themselves! 

Key Findings

My research suggested a number of factors that had an impact on the quality of the Coaching Relationship from the Coaching Manager’s perspective (see figure 1 below). 

  • Intrapersonal and interpersonal factors did impact Coaching Managers’ perception of the quality of Coaching Relationships, and thus the outcome of Employee Coaching. For example, past experience, whether of previous managers, previous organisations or even parents, did influence their behaviour. Coaching Managers also recognised that how they and their employees ‘showed up’ (mood, attitude and mindset) also contributed to, or detracted from, the quality of the Coaching Relationship.
  • The context in which Employee Coaching takes place influences how Coaching Managers viewed their role and how some employees view Employee Coaching. A well-established coaching strategy as part of a learning, high performance culture does influence how Coaching Managers and their employees engage with the coaching process. But, some people do respond negatively to the idea of coaching – all the more reason for organisations and Coaching Managers to be clear about the circumstances in which coaching is to be employed through strategy announcements and individual contracting (although one interviewee did opine that coaching should be like “a good facelift – you don’t know it is there”).
  • Employee Coaching may not be appropriate in all circumstances. Coaching Managers used other managerial ‘approaches’ in circumstances where they thought that Employee Coaching was not appropriate or was not working. They recognised that establishing their employee’s needs in the moment was more important than formality in Employee Coaching, such that effective Employee Coaching could take place over the photocopier.
  • Coaching Managers were aware that coaching does require a different state.  Awareness of the various intrapersonal and interpersonal factors that contributed to their state was important. In this respect, ‘self-management’ practice, such as advocated by Kemp (2008), and ongoing support by their organisation, has a vital and sustaining role beyond initial coach training. 

Factors that impact the quality of the Coaching Relationship from Coaching Manager’s perspective (Figure 1)

© Stewart Brown 2020

So, what does this mean for Coaching Managers, trainers and L&D professionals charged with investing in Employee Coaching?

My research confirmed that Employee Coaching is not a ‘watered-down’ version of coaching. As one interviewee memorably put it: “Coaching feels for me like it’s in my DNA… [it’s] a way of being, rather than a way of doing”.  Therefore, the recommendations that have accompanied the professionalisation of coaching around training, CPD, use of contracting and supervision, all apply to Coaching Managers and should be central all training provided to Coaching Managers

The Coaching Relationship is key. Here are some key practical tips to enhance its quality:

  • ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’. Some form of self-management by the Coaching Manager is necessary in all circumstances, because of the influence of the intrapersonal and the interpersonal behind all Coaching Relationships. All coach training should introduce the concept of self-management, and provide ongoing structure (reflection journaling, CPD, peer forums, supervision) . But the level of self-management should directly correlate to, and form part of, the sophistication with which a Coaching Manager wishes to deploy Employee Coaching.
  • Lack of ‘chemistry’ between Coaching Manager and their employee indicates interference at the intrapersonal or interpersonal level. An employee can’t simply choose a different coach, as would be the case for other forms of coaching. The Coaching Manager and employee should explore this lack of ‘chemistry’.
  • Be alert to opportunities for coaching ‘moments’. Coaching need not be restricted to formal ‘coaching sessions’. But be aware that some employees are more sensitive to use of the word ‘coaching’ than others. Contracting can be useful in mitigating adverse reactions. 
  • Be open to trying out other management approaches if coaching does not appear to be working. Select the managerial approach following careful consideration (and discussion) about what would be most helpful for the employee in the moment.
  • Finally, practice a bit of self-kindness. Not all coaching will ‘feel’ like it was effective. Reflect, discuss with your employee and, ideally, your supervisor, and try again.

Interested to hear more?

Please do get in contact if you would like any further detail about my research or if you would like to discuss its contents. 


Further reading and references

Brown, S.C.T. (2019) ‘Self-management: the intrapersonal and interpersonal factors behind an effective coaching relationship in employee coaching’ Unpublished MA dissertation Leeds Beckett University.

Gregory, J, and Levy, P (2011) ‘It’s not me, it’s you: A multilevel examination of variables that impact employee coaching relationships’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 2, pp. 67-88.

Grant, A.M. (2016) ‘The third ‘generation’ of workplace coaching: creating a culture of quality conversations’, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 10:1, pp.37-53.

Kemp, T. (2008) ‘Self-management and the coaching relationship: Exploring coaching impact beyond models and methods’, International Coaching Psychology Review 2008, Vol. 3, pp. 32–42.

© Stewart Brown 2020