Leading Teams through Coaching and Taming the Advice Monster

Dinakaran Sankaranarayanan


Leading Teams through Coaching and Taming the Advice Monster

As we grow up in our career, we tend to manage teams and dozens of employees. Teams often look upon us to provide technical guidance and suggestions for day to day work-related activities and the challenges associated with executing them. Managing Teams is an art in itself. There is a need to have people skills along with the technical skills to make this role work. Lack of any one of this can make it difficult for the team and there can be a significant dip in productivity as a whole.

Taming our Advice Monster

There comes a time when you have to manage people who are subject matter experts and you have no idea. And then you realize that you are handicapped by the lack of knowledge in that specific area and you kind of struggle. The people who are reporting to us are smarter in that specific problem domain. The more senior you become, the challenges of sailing in the unchartered territory are more. And the teams that report to you as well try to seek directions and next steps and you are forced offer guidance.

There are other times where teams rely on you to find solutions for the problems because you are an expert. It so happens that in addition to doing your work, you may have to figure out and resolve the issues that the teams face too. This becomes a challenge during tough demanding timelines and many a time we become the bottleneck. The teams tend to rely on asking for approval and feedback in every step of the way.

Both these situations present challenges in their own ways, but the approach to both situations may be similar. So there is a better way to deal with both these situations and it is through Coaching. Coaching is typically associated with Executive Coaches who help the CEO’s and other C suite executive to navigate the complexities of a large organization. But the coaching tips and strategies are similar. For sure, Executive Coaches may know very less than the CEO and the issues that a company face. They are also not subject matter experts to provide solutions to problems. Still, the idea of coaching is something most leaders rely on.

Leading and managing teams through Coaching?

The Coaching process is more about listening to the issues and problems presented by the employees patiently. Trying to understand the problem by prodding employees to add more context to the problem. And to ask them what are the options available to address the problem. The whole idea is more about trying to make employees articulate the problem statement well and get as such context as possible and also trying to understand the options available to address the issue before offering any advice.

After doing all the listening only, it is recommended to think about any solution or advice to the problem. Most of the time the solutions being thought by the employee may be the better ones in case we are not sure of the subject matter. But at times employees want to bounce off the idea to others to see if there are some perspectives being missed and these coaching sessions can help to uncover any hidden challenges. Also asking the most basic and relevant questions can help the employees to understand and get a better view of the problem themselves.

While listening before advising is the most common fact everybody understands, hardly most of us follow it in practice. We tend to deceive ourselves into the fake listening where we are not actively listening completely but waiting to offer our point of view even before understanding the actual problem at hand.

Basic tenents of the Coaching Process

Coaching Habit is one of the good books that talk about the Coaching Process. Though it is more suited to executive coaching, some of the good bits can be applicable for all of us leading teams with diverse knowledge and background. Some of the more common questions centred around understanding something like:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. What else? Anything else?
  3. What is the real challenge for you?

Once the above questions are answered and clarified, it so that happens that most of the time, the actual problem that was stated before may have not been the actual problem. After the initial prodding and trying to understand more, the context becomes more obvious and the actual framing of the problem may become better targeted and understood. So it is always better to listen to the problem patiently before jumping to give advice/ solution to a wrong problem.

In a lot of cases, giving advice will not help if the problem statement or domain is not clearly understood. It so happens that employees may come up with a different problem statement and our limited understanding of the problem without context and trying to quickly offer suggestions will be treated as orders by employees which can become counterproductive as well. So it is always better to listen patiently, and then some more follow up questions to understand more about the problem, ask them the options/ solutions as well. And if and only if none of the options that are provided by the employee helps to solve the problem at hand, we must offer our advice. In the fast-paced world, we always let our advice monster get the better of ourselves and start advising without taking time to understand the actual context.

Helping employees make better decisions

Also letting employees choose the solution to the problem by helping them make better decisions will also help them feel empowered and make them self sufficient. It will also help them improve their autonomy and decision making thereby improve their confidence and self-worth as well. This becomes more and more relevant in the knowledge economy where the people who work for us are more knowledgable and it is always not possible to offer good advice or suggestions.

Two books that I have come across that conveys the idea succinctly are written by Michael Bungay

Coaching Habit https://www.amazon.in/Coaching-Habit-Michael-Bungay-Stanier/dp/0978440749 Advice Trap https://www.amazon.in/Advice-Trap-Humble-Curious-Forever-ebook/dp/B083YZTW4B/

So next time around if someone in my team comes to me with an issue or problem statement, I intent to patiently listen and follow-up with more questions and clarifications to understand the context and the options thought by my team before offering any piece of advice and try to tame the Advice Monster in me.