Delusion is a powerful drug. Frank Sinatra famously acted like a big shot and bragged about his celebrity status years before anyone knew his name. Indeed, it was his oversized ego that propelled the scrawny twenty-something to stardom. Well, that and his extraordinary talent as a singer, actor, and performer.
Guess which trait your managers share with Ol’ Blue Eyes?
Here’s a hint: it’s not the voice.
Yes, although many managers lack the essential skills for their jobs, a good number are nonetheless convinced of their expertise—especially as coaches. According to research by leadership professor Julia Milner and management consultant Trenton Milner, “managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”
The Milners’ study, which recently appeared in the Harvard Business Review, “shows that most managers don’t understand what coaching really is.” They write:
“First, we asked a group of participants to coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in a course on leadership training participated, with a variety of backgrounds and jobs. One-third of the participants were female and two-thirds were male; on average, they were 32 years old and had eight years of work and 3.8 years of leadership experience. The coaching conversations lasted five minutes and were videotaped. Later, these tapes were evaluated by other participants in the coaching course through an online peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the conversations. All of these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience and 7.4 years of coaching experience.
Participants then received face-to-face training in two groups of 50, with breakouts in smaller groups for practice, feedback, and reflection around different coaching skills. At the end, we videotaped another round of short coaching conversations, which were again evaluated by both peers and coaching experts. In total, we collected and analyzed more than 900 recorded evaluations of coaching conversations (pre-training and post-training), which were accompanied by surveys asking participants about their attitudes and experiences with leadership coaching before and after the training.
The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, ‘First you do this’ or ‘Why don’t you do this?’
This kind of micromanaging-as-coaching was initially reinforced as good coaching practice by other research participants as well. In the first coaching exercise in our study, the evaluations peers gave one another were significantly higher than the evaluations from experts.”
Fortunately, the results indicate that it’s not too difficult to close the gap between delusion and actual performance. All it takes is a little training. In fact, the researchers saw a 40.2% increase in the managers’ overall coaching ability—and even higher results in skills such as a manager’s ability to “let the coachee arrive at their own solution”—after just a brief training course.
Once again, this story illustrates the transformative effect of systematic manager training and skills development. Delusion may be powerful, but it’s no substitute for genuine connections and coaching conversations between managers and their subordinates.
So the next time a manager comes up to you and says, “I want to do it my way,” tell them you’d rather avoid doing somethin’ stupid. After all, the best is yet to come.