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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  • John Hunter

    I think coaching is important and much more valuable than the risks. I do agree that there are issues to address. And it shouldn’t be the only coaching going on.
    To me, managing the system of a human organization is full of situations where coaching is the best way to improve. I do agree that coaches should coach based on their expertise and ability to do so, not their place in a “hierarchy.” To me though, one of the most important traits for a manager is the ability to coach and facilitate coaching (by senior developers etc.).
    I would be fine with a situation where a manager was making sure the system provided the right coaching even if they didn’t coach.

  • Matt Block

    I think something that people miss is the difference between “coaching” and “training”. Coaching doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the one doing the training. Take a sports team for example. The head coach does not directly train the players. He/she will often identify issues that need to be worked on, but then other resources do the actual training.
    So a manager coaching by identifying things their directs could improve on and then facilitating that improvement, but not necessarily doing it themselves, is very appropriate. I think this is very much inline with what John was saying.

  • Ronian Siew

    Hi Jurgen,
    The three questions asked in the first part of this post very neatly and succintly sends the message! Why is it that so many managers fall into that trap? Why is it that a manager automatically assumes that he/she knows more about the subject matter than the “subordinates” (oh I so hate that word)? And even if the manager does not explicitly state that he knows more, then why does the manager continually offer solutions to technical problems to the engineer when he should instead be facilitating the meeting and keep reinforcing the mission statement? This happens way too often, especially here in Asia, due to culture. Lemme go take a look at your book, and try to find the answers. Maybe then I can post more informed comments (as I should “seek first to understand, and then to be understood”.)

  • Jurgen Appelo

    “I would be fine with a situation where a manager was making sure the system provided the right coaching even if they didn’t coach.”
    This makes it sound like this situation is an acceptable exception to the rule. That is exactly my point. It should be the other way around.
    Coaching _not_ done my managers should be the default. I would be fine in some situations where managers are coaches too.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    The dictionaries and Wikipedia show training is part of coaching. Those who want to redefine coaching have the right to do so, but will struggle with the general opinion that coaching includes training.
    There is no universal law for definitions of words. They are all just opinions.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks for your input!

  • Manoj Vadakkan

    A dynamic in play here might be the fact that how the IT managers got where they are today. In my own experience, and most of the managers I have worked with, they were once a developer – and a good one that is. It usually is like “hey, you are a good developer, we don’t want you to do that anymore, I want you to manage the team”.

  • Adam Searcy

    I agree. It is always a temptation as you transition from “doer” to manager to attempt to manage the details of the work your subordinates are completing. A common failure in selecting the right manager versus promoting from within.

  • bartek

    I personally like the ICF definition of coaching: “Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” (
    This definition implies another: Mentoring is a process where mentor (an expert in some field) gives advices to a mentoree (a beginner in the same field).
    Mentor and coach roles can be played by the same person, or two different.
    ICF says that coaching is even better when coach is not an expert in the coachee’s goal domain. It leaves room for ‘silly and naive’ questions, which enable creativity. It also says that coach should not have an interest in coachee’s goal.
    So for me:
    A manager can do (and should do) the coaching to non-subordinate employees.
    A manager can do mentoring to his subordinate employees.
    A manager shouldn’t coach his subordinate employees.

  • Michael_lausser

    Hi Jurgen,
    Thank you for provoking! 🙂 To me there’s a small confusion here. When I speak of coaching in German speaking countries, most of the time we would speak of systemic coaching. This usually has no training element to it. We do however have agile coaches, skiing coaches, fitness coaches, shopping coaches and so on. So I think we need to be clear about the type of coaching. Ah … Plus I do have a wife who wants to “coach” me every other day, which takes me to my second point.
    When I am the coachee, I want to be in control. The coachee chooses the coach and the coachee decides where he want’s to go during the process (oops, much of the management is out now 😉
    However, in some cases I am perfectly fine with my wife coaching me and the same might be true for some of my team members every now and then. I think no manager should miss the chance to coach people who approach him on their quest for help (systemic coaching).
    As long as … The coachee is in control. Anything else not only reinforces the status quo, it is also an unpleasant way to spend ones time. I should tell my wife … 😉

  • Mike Lowery

    Good post Jurgen,
    While I totally agree with your post and the principles behind it, the important thing is what they coach you on and how they do it.
    So how to do dev probably not a good idea to coach, but how about business case coaching, presentation style coaching or how to do well in an interview. These are all valid things a manager could coach on (assuming they have the skills).

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