I was facilitating a workshop on performance management with a group of experienced NHS managers recently. I got to the part about dealing with performance problems when they arise and how using a coaching approach often prevents the problem from escalating.

I gave some examples, backed them up with some research findings but got that sinking feeling that I had “lost” some of them.

What followed was a lively discussion about whether managing and coaching are compatible activities.

The first point made was that it would be impossible for someone to be truly open and honest with a manager about something with which they were having difficulties. There would be lingering uncertainty over whether anything said would be treated confidentially or taken down and used in evidence at a later date - for example at a performance or salary review.

“It is possible for managers to build an environment of trust”

This is a fair point. A relationship based on position power, such as manager and direct report, generates some conflict of interest. Confidentiality and trust form an essential part of an effective coaching relationship. An individual may not open up as fully with their manager as with an external coach.

However, it is possible for skilled managers to create, to some degree, an environment of trust and respect where valuable coaching conversations can take place.

The second point was how to find the time to sit down and hold what the group perceived as lengthy coaching conversations.

Making space

Time is precious but if something is important enough, we create the time for it through planning and scheduling of dates. If coaching is important, we need to look at how to make space for it, perhaps using some of the time during regular one-to-one and team meetings, or perhaps using a shared train or car journey.

Nor does coaching necessarily require hours - some of the most productive coaching sessions I have experienced have required a cup of coffee and 20 minutes.

The final point was that managers exist to deliver on objectives, to be clear about expectations and provide instruction and advice. When there is a problem, it is their responsibility to come up with the solutions. The essentially non-directive nature of coaching conflicts with this directive nature of management.

It is quite a challenge for anyone not to propose a solution, particularly when it appears to be staring you in the face. It is natural to want to show knowledge and competence. Nevertheless, part of creating an atmosphere of trust and respect is to demonstrate trust and belief in an individual finding the answers for himself.

By asking questions that encourage exploration of options instead of giving advice or instruction it is possible to motivate, develop and empower people. This increases confidence, self-reliance and less dependency on managers, freeing precious time.