Navigating the thin line between workplace coaching and unsolicited advice

A manager who wants to establish a trusted level of dialogue with an employee must first learn to listen, not talk

Dear Bob ...

I just read your Advice Line post, "How not to motivate or coach your employees." I was really curious about something you said.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Sometimes what you don't do is as important as what you do, as Bob points out in "How not to motivate or coach your employees." | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Being either a consultant or a subordinate for most of my career, one of my biggest disappointments concerning management is the lack of attention to mentoring and true leading versus merely managing. Certainly in the leadership roles I have been in, sprinkled throughout my career, a mentoring approach has worked well for me and is highly respected.

I agree with you that unsolicited advice isn't often given, but I've never considered it a principle that others in management might actually follow. Before declaring it flawed, I'd like to understand the basis or origin of the principle. Nothing irritates me more in the workplace that working for someone whose mind I have to constantly read -- who may objectively see my faults but not provide leadership, coaching, and constructive criticism and feedback.

Contrary-wise, I have had a smattering of managers who provided judiciously given advice, and I always found it extremely helpful and personally enriching. No one can see himself objectively, and objective advice is invaluable in building a more objective and, therefore, correct view of one's self.

How is it that leaders can successfully coach when unsolicited advice doesn't work?

- Puzzled

Dear Puzzled ...

I actually learned the principle from one of my daughters, who explained it to me one day when I tried to give her some -- wait for it -- unsolicited advice. She was, of course, right; people don't generally accept advice they haven't asked for.

Which brings us to your question -- you're right that coaching and mentoring are important management responsibilities. As a corollary, a willingness to accept coaching and mentoring is a significant employee responsibility, which means that a major part of developing a healthy manager/employee relationship is establishing this dynamic. Unless an employee is interested in what their manager has to say about how they can improve, coaching will have only a negative impact. It will damage the relationship without leading to any uptick in the employee's performance.

This might seem to be automatic, but it isn't. Plenty of employees think they're better qualified than their manager to handle something or other, and sometimes they're even right to believe so. Thus, managers first have to establish why their advice is worth listening to, which means establishing a level of trust and mutual respect that isn't necessarily present when the relationship first forms.

The process will vary for everyone, but as a manager, you should keep in mind that listening is far more useful in establishing trust than talking, especially in the early stages of working together. As a general rule, an employee who feels that his/her manager listened to and understood their direction is more likely to trust the manager in question. From there, the manager will be in a better position to establish the coaching dimension of their relationship.

- Bob

This story, "Navigating the thin line between workplace coaching and unsolicited advice," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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