Should a Manager Be the Boss or a Coach?

The very first person I ever interviewed as a hiring manager asked me an interesting question: “What is your people management philosophy?”

Good question! At that point in my career, I had led project teams and managed contractors, but I hadn’t done anything that really required a people management philosophy. I’m sure I said something like, “hire great people, give them interesting problems, and stay out of their way.”

A few years later I had the opportunity to hear a talk given by Bruce Tulgan, author of It’s OK to Be the Boss. Tulgan’s philosophy is that “staying out of the way” is not management. He argues that a manager’s job is to provide clear expectations and helpful direct guidance. Everyone who works for you should know exactly what you expect them to do and how you expect them to do it. The granularity of direction depends on many factors, but the goal is to overcome the epidemic problem of not knowing what is expected of you as an employee, how exactly success is measured, and how well you are doing. Further, managers have a responsibility to actively help their people grow and improve every day, not just to swoop in and fight fires when things go wrong.

David Rock, whom I’ve been writing about lately, on the other hand, approaches the world from the perspective of a coach. From his point of view, the best management philosophy centers around enabling a state of mind that helps employees find solutions. In Rock’s worldview, employees need to feel safe (we get defensive when we feel our status is threatened), have autonomy, understand expectations, and we need to connect with them on a personal, human level.

In Rock’s view, the job of a manger is to create conditions under which his or her employees can solve problems themselves, thus ensuring that they buy into the solutions and helping them grow. Tulgan would say that if, as a manager, if you have opinions about how an employee should solve a problem, you should tell him or her so he or she doesn’t spend a lot of time doing it wrong. Rock, on the other hand, speaks of how giving people a solution creates resistance, not relief and gratitude (a phenomenon Rock himself labels as “bizarre,” but true). In Rock’s view, it’s better to ask questions that lead someone to an answer rather than just telling them the answer.

What do I believe? Rock’s position has never rung completely true for me–there are many times when my managers had excellent direction for which I was grateful. And I don’t believe I tend to react with resistance to ideas that aren’t my own, so it’s hard for me to envision this being the default state of others.

On the other hand, I’m a big believer in the power of “the question”–the question that snaps everything into focus and makes you realize that you are missing some fundamentally flawed assumptions about how you are approaching a problem. I’ve worked for people who are good at asking The Question and I’ve always greatly respected this power and the effect it has on the person being asked. A great question suggests multiple solution paths and, crucially, the chance to be the owner of the solution. A solution you feel ownership of is more compelling than one suggested by another person.

I’ve been significantly influenced by Tulgan and his guidance that to be successful as a manager one has to be active in the role, not just on call in case anyone has problems, and I intend to continue to try and live up to his ideals. In the meantime, I often don’t have the answers; I’ll continue to think about Rock, coaching, and the art of the question.


One thought on “Should a Manager Be the Boss or a Coach?

  1. Pingback: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy as Inspiration for Coaching | Engaged

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