Sunday, April 13, 2014

Can a manager also be a coach?

Reading on in John Whitmore's book Coaching for Performance, I've come across an interesting section on the manager as coach.  On the face of it, it would seem that the 2 roles may well be contradictory:  a manager usually has the job of evaluating your performance, which may be tied in with pay increases, promotion and job security, and traditionally managers have taken a carrot and stick approach to make people accountable.  A coach, however, tries to build a relationship that is less about evaluation and more about partnership.

Traditional management style likes to tell people what to do.  In fact the phrase "this school is not a democracy" was heard several times by myself and other teachers at a previous school.  A dictatorial style of management is a quick and easy one, and gives the person at the top the feeling of being in control, yet in my experience the real effect of this is that teachers become upset and demotivated in a situation where it is unsafe for them to speak out and offer constructive feedback.  A toxic climate results where everyone appears to be subservient, but behind the scenes there is a lot of back-biting and resentment which saps performance.  I've sat through staff meetings where "good ideas" for taking the school or curriculum forward were "shared" and where the majority of those present were sitting passively knowing that if they didn't like the direction the bus was heading in, their only option was to get off it.  Questioning, critical thinking and so on were not seen as appropriate behaviours for teachers.

What happens at the other end of the scale?  Well I've worked in places like that too, where teachers were basically the masters of their own classrooms and just got on with teaching whatever they thought best.  I have to say these were very creative schools (I developed a huge number of different curriculums there, for example), but this can also be risky.  Some teachers in a situation like that may perform poorly because they are simply unaware of expectations for excellence, or even what excellence looks like.  Those who are extremely self-motivated will do well, those who are not, well they will probably continue to be mediocre.

The argument is that coaching is in the middle of these 2 extremes.  A manager with experience of coaching can ask the right questions and empower the teacher to become more aware and take action by him/herself.  This can lead to teachers being self-motivated enough to want to take on extra responsibility, knowing that they will be guided and supported.  In such a situation the manager ends up more in control, because teachers are prompted to think about their practice and are likely to be motivated to move forward in the direction the school is moving,  than in the situation where a manager is simply imparting instructions and expecting that they will be followed.  Whitmore writes, "coaching provides the manager with real, not illusory, control, and provides the subordinate with real, not illusory, responsibility."

At a previous school I took on a position of extra responsibility attracted by the promise of being mentored to develop leadership skills.  This didn't happen.  Now as I reflect on it I am thinking this is because the person who was supposed to be mentoring me, still saw the job as more of a manager.   Coaching takes more time and more thought, it's quicker simply to dictate.  But according to Whitmore, here is the paradox:  "if a manager does coach his staff, the developing staff shoulder much greater responsibility, freeing the manager from fire-fighting, not only to coach more but to attend to those overarching issues that only he can address."

Is there a quick and easy way of determining when is the right time to coach and when is the right time to instruct?  Whitmore argues that:
  • If time is important, a manager might choose to do the job him/herself or give exact directions
  • If quality is most important then coaching for high awareness and responsibility will be most successful
  • If learning is the most important factor, then coaching will optimize learning and retention.
He points out, however, that in most businesses time takes precedence over quality.  I find this statement interesting and am wondering if this is also the case in schools?  Do leaders most often take decisions and share them with teachers because of a lack of time to talk, question and listen to everyone?  And in an institution that is aimed at learning, shouldn't coaching actually be more important?

Photo Credit: niceric a.k.a Eric Tan via Compfight cc

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