Managers Should Not Be Coaching Developers

Should hospital directors be coaching doctors and nurses?

Should movie producers be coaching actors and animators?

Should Rupert Murdoch be coaching writers and journalists?

I think three times no.
And yet, I often hear about managers coaching developers, designers, or other knowledge workers.

In a previous blog post I wrote “managers cannot coach employees”. OK, I admit that was a strong opinion, weakly held. Many people liked it, others strongly disagreed. Allow me to rephrase that:

Managers shouldn’t coach employees.

And with coaching I mean competence development:

– a teaching or training process in which an individual gets support while learning to achieve a specific personal or professional result or goal. (Wikipedia)

– to instruct, direct, or prompt (Merriam-Webster)

Reinforcing Hierarchies

One of the biggest problems in many organizations is the hierarchy. The hierarchy kills motivation, stifles innovation, and invites mutilation. (Yes, I made the last one up.)

It is extremely hard to get rid of the hierarchy because there are many reinforcing feedback loops that keep it firmly in place. For example, many managers spend a lot time and energy climbing up the corporate ladder. Psychological research shows that people are reluctant to give up things that they have invested in, even when it’s for their own good. And thus, managers prefer to keep the hierarchy in place. It’s an emotional thing, nothing rational. Like holding on to Céline Dion records.

Coaching of employees by managers is a reinforcing feedback loop. It sends the message that managers are superiors who are teaching their subordinates. It is emphasized by management gurus who (with best intentions) tell managers to become “coaching leaders”. Managers eagerly embrace this message, because it acknowledges that they are important, and more experienced than their subordinates. At the same time these authors (unintentionally) make knowledge workers believe that, in order to become coaches, they have to become managers first.

It’s all wrong.

Managing, Not Coaching

Hospital directors don’t coach doctors and nurses. They manage the hospital.

Movie producers don’t coach actors and animators. They manage production.

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t coach writers and journalist. He manages scandals.

The coaching of young doctors is done by experienced doctors. New actors are often guided and taught by older actors. And aspiring writers usually counsel established writers. That’s the nature of things.

I understand, some managers are actually able to coach knowledge workers quite well. But maybe they shouldn’t. It could send the wrong signal. They would be reinforcing the hierarchy. At that’s the last thing we want.

Managers should manage the system. That’s difficult enough already.

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