Applying a Coaching Approach to People Management

A little while ago Rose wrote a blog for the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog. Here is the article that was published.

Coaching is a term that appears more and more in management circles, and yet it is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. This article unpacks what coaching means, how it can benefit the workplace, and how higher education IT managers can implement a coaching approach today.

Understanding the Coaching Approach

Coaching, in the context of the more commonly understood term "life coaching," is a practice that has gained significant momentum within the executive world over the past twenty to thirty years—and for good reason. Organizations that implement coaching perform 14 percent better than those that don't, with the growth of individual employees increasing by 39 percent compared to those who have not been coached. A 2019 Chief Learning Officer survey also demonstrated that coaching ability was considered the "top desired skill for frontline managers."

But what does it mean to take a coaching approach to people management? In order to implement practices that could make significant positive impacts on workplaces and teams, managers need to have a clear understanding of what coaching is (and what it isn't).

The Association for Coaching defines coaching as "a facilitated, dialogic, and reflective learning process that aims to grow an individual's awareness, responsibility, and choice." Coaching is non-directive, meaning the emphasis is on helping individuals to identify their own resources and find their own answers and solutions.

Taking a coaching approach to managing team members and individual reports, therefore, starts with the following actions:

  • Ask team members questions instead of providing answers to help them find solutions themselves.

  • Work through issues, problems, and challenges from the team member's perspective. Managers should not impart personal or professional views or judgements on issues they feel strongly about when coaching their team members.

  • Encourage self-reflection and review as regular practices that help to increase teams' awareness and responsibility within the workplace.

The Benefits of Adopting a Coaching Approach in the Workplace

In his 2016 book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier addresses how leaders and managers adopting a coaching approach to team management can help their teams "more easily break out of three vicious circles that plague our workplaces: creating overdependence, getting overwhelmed, and becoming disconnected."

Sir John Whitmore, one of the pioneers of the executive coaching industry, notes that through coaching, managers can help staff members increase their sense of personal responsibility for the work they're doing, reduce their levels of stress through an increased feeling of personal control, and increase their feelings of interdependence (or self-actualization) at a personal level and an organizational level.

The Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School states that adopting a coaching approach benefits organizations in the following ways:

  • Empowers individuals and encourages them to take responsibility

  • Increases employee and staff engagement

  • Improves individual performance

  • Helps identify and develop high-potential employees

  • Helps identify organizational and individual strengths and development opportunities

Using a coaching approach to management has far-reaching positive impacts for individuals and their organizations.

When an individual feels more connected to their role and organization, listened to, trusted, and supported, they are able to flourish within their workplace and contribute in ways that benefits both them and their organization—a win-win scenario.

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring or Other Supportive Interventions

Sharon Allen, CEO of Skills for Care, explains the difference between a mentor and coach: "A coach has great questions for your answers; a mentor has great answers for your questions."

Coaching is based on an innate belief that the individual being coached is the expert on themselves and their scenarios and that they already have all the answers they need. The role of a coach is to facilitate these individuals to uncover the answers that are right for them, drawing on their existing knowledge, strength, and experience.

Coaching differs from interventions such as mentoring or consulting in three significant ways. Coaches do not do the following things:

  • Give their story

  • Share their opinions

  • Provide advice on how they or others have overcome obstacles or achieved outcomes

When mentoring is set up and initiated by a mentee, there can be a lot of benefits. However, there is evidence to suggest that poorly executed elements of mentoring (when a mentor only gives advice and opinions or discusses their own story or journey to a certain outcome) can actually be worse for employees than no intervention at all. Coaching encourages managers to step away from imparting advice or perspective and places the power back in the employees' hands to encourage feelings of self-efficacy and control.

How to Implement a Coaching Approach

There are three simple steps that managers can take to immediately begin implementing a coaching approach with their teams. Putting these steps into practice can help managers realize benefits that they may not have previously considered possible.

  1. Ask more questions. The key to coaching is questioning. Making a conscious effort to ask team members more questions about themselves, the work they're doing, and the problems they're facing has the power to unlock answers and solutions to challenges that managers wouldn't have thought of themselves. Questions can challenge team members to think in new and innovative ways and help them to break out of repetitive cycles to embrace learning and problem-solving with passion.

  2. Listen to the answers. It sounds simple, but sincerely listening takes a huge amount of effort and practice to get right. Everyone has a whirring dialogue in their head that often preempts answers from those they have questioned or, instead of listening to answers, is already thinking about a next question or statement. Quieting this internal chatter through focused listening allows managers to be more present for their teams. Diane Schilling's article "10 Steps to Effective Listening" is a great place to start learning how to develop effective listening skills.

  3. Be open to learning from team members. When managers increase how much they're questioning and listening to members of their team, they'll also naturally increase the amount of information that becomes available to learn from. Sometimes, managers will assume they know the right answers to the questions they ask team members. But in many cases, team members will have new and creative approaches to problem-solving that can be utilized to bring about positive changes for the team, processes, or organization. When managers understand that they can learn as much from their team as their team can learn from them, greater organizational efficiencies, a more responsive team, and an information-sharing culture result. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Managers and leaders who put these three strategies into practice will quickly see the broad range of benefits that a coaching approach can bring to the individuals they manage, the team they're a part of, and their workplace as a whole.

For more information about enhancing your skills as a higher education IT manager and leader, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Career Development page.


  1. Rebecca A. Jones, Stehen A. Woods, and Yves R.F. Guillaume, "The Effectiveness of Workplace Coaching: A Meta-Anaysis of Learning and Performance Outcomes from Coaching," Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 89, no. 2 (April 2015): 249–277.

  2. Lisa Malat, "Teaching the Teachers: Why Online Learning Training Will Be Crucial for Higher Ed Talent Prospects," Chief Learning Officer, December 29, 2020.

  3. Why Coaching? Association for Coaching (website), accessed November 16, 2020.

  4. Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit (Toronto: Box of Crayons Press, 2016), 9.

  5. Sir John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance (London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017), 22–36.

  6. "Benefits of Coaching," Institute of Coaching, McLean Hospital, accessed November 16, 2020.

  7. Terri A. Scandura, "Dysfunctional Mentoring Relationships and Outcomes," Journal of Management 24, no. 3 (June 1998): 449–467.

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