3.2 Management roles and behaviours

Line managers encourage difficult questions
Line managers support CI and HII
Avoiding blame
Employees supported with overwork and problems
Line managers with people skills

Organisations that value the knowledge, experience and commitment of their employees are shifting towards a participative and distributed approach to managing. Often described as a ‘coaching style’ of management, it involves a firm transition from the micro-level control and supervision of employee tasks and performance to partnership based on a shared understanding of what needs to be done and how it is to be achieved. Line managers who adopt a coaching style provide employees with regular and timely feedback, recognition of their achievements, clarity of objectives and practical assistance in problem solving and improvement. They facilitate individual learning and development, and actively encourage employee engagement in innovation and improvement activities.

Consider these questions:

Is the formal appraisal interview (if it happens at all) just a ‘tick box’ exercise? Or is it a milestone in a continuous coaching conversation with a line manager who understands how to help each individual develop and deliver their best performance?

There is ample evidence to suggest that in most workplaces, formal appraisal processes have little impact in performance improvement. More often than not, they destroy it. The cyclical appraisal is little more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise, poorly understood by line managers and regarded with apprehension by appraisees.

Are there established procedures for shared learning from mistakes and failures in an open and blame-free way?

Blame cultures are still remarkably common. They lead to concealment, risk aversion and sometimes to bullying, so pose a significant corporate risk.

Is the importance of collaboration, shared learning, reflection and innovation recognised in the organisation’s system of KPIs, targets and incentives?

What you measure is what you get. But it’s much easier to measure things that can be recorded on spreadsheets rather than those vital but intangible assets like co-operation, creativity and commitment. KPIs and targets have a way of creating perverse behaviours, distracting management attention from what should be done to what can be measured. Innovation and improvement become luxuries.

GE Mining is one example of a company moving away from performance management based on individual rankings (for which GE was famous under Jack Welch), towards mutual accountability, trust and a commitment to delivering for each other. GE Mining’s aspiration is for a culture that will help its adaptation to a changing workforce and changing markets, enabling it to offer a unique proposition based on advanced technology and integrated customer service. For such companies this involves jettisoning many aspects of traditional culture and practice, and creating an entrepreneurial ‘start-up’ ethos which includes a radically different approach to performance improvement:

Performance Improvement

Regular improvement meetings

Coaching conversations

Learning lessons – not blaming

Duty of candour – employees are expected to challenge

Team reflection

Incentivising collaborative behaviours

Facilitating participation in innovation and improvement activities

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Performance improvement occurs when the coach provides a safe environment for creativity and risk taking. Mistakes must be viewed as lessons learned and setbacks are opportunities for development, providing employees with the confidence to learn and develop.

Coaching conversations

  1. If we want people to think better, we must essentially let them do all the thinking. Coaching is about self-directed learning:
  2. Let the employee think through their specific issue. Avoid telling them what to do or giving advice. Ask questions about their thought process.
  3. Keep them focused on solutions, not problems.
  4. Challenge them to expand their own thinking and stretch themselves instead of clinging to their comfort zone.
  5. Focus on what they’re doing well so they can play to their own strengths.
  6. Make sure there are clear processes behind every conversation. To be truly helpful, a coaching conversation gives permission to ask questions and explore possibilities.

Useful Questions

The following questions can facilitate a constructive coaching conversation:

  • How long have you been thinking about this?
  • How often do you think about it?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this?
  • How clear are you about the issue?
  • How high a priority does this issue have?
  • How committed are you to resolving this?
  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
  • What impact is thinking about this issue having on you?
  • How do you react when you think of this?
  • How do you feel about the resources you’ve invested thus far?
  • Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?
  • How can you deepen your insight on this?
  • How clear are you on what to do next?
  • How can I best help you further?

Changing the mindset and behaviours of some line managers can be challenging, not least when their whole experience of managing is one where they’ve been expected to be in control. Delegation, empowerment and trust seem to weaken the authority, and status, of the manager. Re-orientating managers to their new coaching-centred role needs to be taken seriously by those leading change, and it needs to be recognised that some people will never make the change. Once an individual manager has been given every opportunity to embrace the new ways of working, if they remain obstinate it is often better to part company with them rather than risk the spread of their negativity to others.

When done well however, the change to a new role can lead to remarkable transformations.

Beverly’s story

Beverly was a section head in a data processing company in Nottinghamshire, responsible for a group of 15 office staff. She had a reputation for strict control and low tolerance for any deviation from ‘her way’ of doing things.

The company decided to introduce self-managed teams as a way of streamlining workflow and reducing sickness absence. Beverly was devastated, feeling that she’d lost her hard-won status as a manager because she was no longer ‘in charge’, and started to look for jobs elsewhere.

Then she realised that she was beginning to sleep better and was less irritable with the children when she left work. Under the previous system she felt solely responsible for whether or not her section met its targets, and was continually firefighting to resolve problems and manage poor performance. Despite her frequent admonishments, she never really felt that the people she managed were fully behind her.

After the new system was introduced, she gradually found that self-managed team members were coming to her for advice and were genuinely appreciative of her knowledge and experience. Then the company offered Beverly the opportunity to join an ILM-accredited coaching course. Not only did the old, authoritarian personality disappear but she discovered a real sense of liberation – and was able to focus on the continuous improvement activities that had always been squeezed out by time pressures during her previous role.

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