Wright, N. (2005) ‘Leading Edge: Managing People through Directing, Delegating and Coaching’, Training Journal, Fenman, January, pp52-55.
Key learning points
· Managing people is a significant challenge for leaders operating in changing environments.
· Natural leadership approaches are determined by factors including style, beliefs and culture.
· Leaders need to modify their approach to meet the demands of changing circumstances.
· Sample leadership interventions include directing, delegating and coaching.
· Leaders can and should develop their capabilities in each of these intervention areas.
Managing people positively and effectively is probably the greatest challenge faced by leaders in organisations today. This is largely because organisations face continual change and staff hold increasingly diverse expectations of leaders, teams and wider organisational life. Against this backdrop, leaders need to engage consciously in on-going growth in self-awareness, organisational analytical capabilities and flexibility of approach.
This article will explore a selection of possible leadership interventions that fall broadly under the people management umbrella. Our choice of the right kind of intervention is likely to depend on a number of factors including our natural leadership style, underlying beliefs about the nature of leadership and prevailing organisational culture. Leaders need to understand the needs and opportunities presented by each situation in order to choose the best intervention.
I will describe below a sample range of possible interventions including directing, delegating and coaching, providing good practice tips on route, and conclude with recommendations for the aspiring leader and manager.
Leaders are likely to feel most comfortable with management approaches that suit their natural style, beliefs and norms. It's difficult to say whether any particular approach is essentially right or wrong because the suitability of each approach depends on its own unique circumstances. Take, for example, Winston Churchill's leadership style, widely regarded as critical for wartime Britain but unsuitable for peacetime Britain. As a general rule of thumb, I advise that leaders consider what type of intervention is appropriate for (a) individual or team X (b) in Y situation (c) at Z time. This means pausing to reflect on one’s approach to ensure that it matches one’s own intentions and the needs of the situation.
We’ll start by looking at these three areas of style, belief and culture and their potential influences on leadership approach (figure 1):
The table illustrates how very different leadership approaches may be entirely appropriate to different organizational needs. The risk is that if leaders always operate in preferred default mode, however, irrespective of circumstances, their approach may become inappropriate, misguided or ineffective. Leadership interventions must be, therefore, contextually appropriate to be genuinely effective.
We will explore below three specific forms of intervention that represent key components of the people management toolkit. ‘Directing’ relates naturally to Style 1, Belief 1 and Culture 1 above. ‘Delegating’ and ‘Coaching’ correspondingly reflect Styles 2 & 3, Belief 2 and Culture 2. Note that each intervention type must be exercised from the basis of a supportive intention if the results are to be positive, effective and sustainable.
If, for instance, directing is exercised from a punitive intention, the results are likely to be negative and demoralising. In each instance, therefore, it’s worth asking yourself, ‘what’s the intention behind this intervention’ before stepping into action. I’ll describe each of these intervention forms in greater detail below.
Directing is essentially concerned with ‘telling people what to do’. There are a wide range of circumstances in which this may be appropriate, for example:
Imagine, for instance, a police officer standing at a busy road junction where traffic lights have failed. Under normal circumstances, we would not expect the officer to consult with road users on the best way to negotiate the junction but, rather, to give clear and coordinated instructions in such a way that enables traffic to flow and accidents to be avoided. Similarly, there are situations in which leaders will need to manage people using a directing mode, even it that falls outside of their own preferred style.
I remember once, for example, inducting a new team member using a fairly consultative approach that inadvertently left her feeling unclear about expectations and boundaries. In discussion afterwards she remarked astutely, ‘I would have much preferred if you had simply told me what to do during those early stages, giving clear instructions, so that I could have found my feet more easily’. Directing didn’t fit easily with my usual leadership style and I failed to recognise and address the needs of the new situation.
The downside of a directing approach is that if used regularly and indiscriminately, it can create unhealthy dependency, limit opportunities for discovery and growth, stifle creativity and innovation and engender boredom and frustration. I would suggest, therefore, that a more consultative approach is nurtured as a norm and that directing is limited to those types of situation described above.
John Heron’s Complete Facilitator’s Handbook (1999) provides helpful insight on the practice and implications of directive-type interventions alongside other forms.
Delegating is essentially concerned with ‘giving others work to do’. It is, perhaps, one of the best known aspects of people management and yet probably the least well-mastered. At the one end of the spectrum we have leaders who are afraid of losing control of key tasks or processes and so only delegate work that has negligible significance or impact. At the other end, leaders who delegate almost everything and, as a result, abdicate responsibility that should really be theirs. I want to demonstrate how both of these extremes are ineffective and counterproductive and to offer alternative forms that can bring about more positive results.
Sue was team manager in a sales-oriented organisation where intense internal competition was both encouraged and rewarded. Her own professional reputation and departmental budget depended on continual successful results and so she was keen to run a very tight ship. She became reluctant to delegate contracts to less-experienced team members, however, in case they didn’t manage them as well as she could and so found herself working long hours while team colleagues stood idle. Over time, Sue’s risk-aversion led to personal burnout and consequent missed opportunities led to business failure.
What Sue hadn’t realised was that failing to utilise the greatest creative resource at her disposal, i.e. the team and its members, actually increased the very risk of departmental failure she was seeking to avoid. If Sue had invested her time in developing the capabilities of the team instead of managing all contracts herself, the team’s longer-term productive potential would have multiplied. Delegating tasks responsibly is one way by which this can be achieved because it provides team members with opportunity to experience real-work situations first hand and to learn through them. The leader acts as mentor, helping the team member to avoid or mitigate against the worst risks whilst encouraging on-going initiative, reflection and learning.
John was a very different leader. He was happy to delegate wide-ranging tasks to team members but failed to provide them with the kinds of information, authority and support that would help them to work confidently and effectively. As a result, team members often missed target deadlines and quality standards and frequently complained about feeling stressed, confused and abandoned. A simple delegating procedure I’ve developed with my own team would have helped to avoid such problems occurring:
When using this model, the initial planning process helps to clarify respective expectations of the task and provides opportunity to raise and tackle any issues or concerns that may arise. The leader-as-mentor encourages the team member to think-forward, anticipate any problems that may arise and prepare strategies to deal with them. These could include possible difficulties of an emotional as well as practical nature. The shadowing sequence enables the team member to learn from the leader as role model, grow in confidence and technique and receive constructive feedback. The final review considers (a) the delegating procedure, (b) what has happened as a result and why and (c) what should happen next.
A helpful short checklist to work through before delegating is, therefore:
For further reading I would recommend Chris Roebuck’s Effective Delegation (1998) which provides lots of helpful, practical advice in this area.
Coaching is essentially concerned with ‘helping people to do things for themselves’. Definitions abound alongside related terms such as mentoring, consulting and supervision. In broad terms, I think of coaching as an opportunity for a person to receive questions that will help develop perspective, insight and capabilities. It is, therefore, a very valuable technique to support people involved in roles that require an ability to show initiative, think laterally or manage complex processes. Coaching should always operate from a developmental intention; that is, its principal focus is on personal development even if used to help a person achieve specified goals or task objectives
The majority of coaching in organisations is carried out by line-managers as part of their ordinary leadership role. One of the difficulties this can present, however, is that the power dynamics inherent to a line relationship can make it difficult for coachees to raise areas of interest or concern that may be considered sensitive or un-diplomatic. This does, of course, depend on the nature of the on-going relationship between team leader and team members and the degree to which openness is encouraged and supported as part of ordinary team life.
Some organisations address this dilemma by contracting external specialists to provide this type of developmental support, e.g. executive coaches for leaders at director level. The advantages of this approach are that potentially unhelpful hierarchical dynamics can be avoided and sensitive, internal confidential issues may be discussed without inhibition. In the organisation for which I work as L&D Manager, for instance, we provide external coaching for employees who fall within the following categories:
The L&D Team provides advice on how to manage coaching contracts and to make best use of the coaching experience. We believe it’s important to ensure the coaching agenda is always client-driven and so we encourage prospective coachees to prepare in advance and explain at the outset of each session:
For those leaders who provide coaching to members of their own teams, I’ve found that this can work best if explicit coaching sessions are separated from more task-oriented business meetings. In my own team, I meet with each member weekly for a 1-hour business catch-up and separately for a 1-hour developmental coaching session. We also separate team business meetings from team development meetings in order to maintain clarity of agenda and focus. These latter meetings incorporate peer-coaching which provides further opportunity to engage with different elements of the coaching experience.
Nevertheless, leaders and coachees still sometimes report that sessions can feel tense or stuck, e.g. owing to other issues outside of the coaching agenda. If I find a session heavy going or struggling with content, I try to make a mental switch to consider whether there might be process of dynamic issues at work that need to be aired and addressed before moving forward. If, for instance, the team member is feeling pressured with immediate work deadlines, I will raise not only what we need to focus on in our time together but also how and when might be the best time to do it. That often works well as a releasing mechanism.
There are lots of books on coaching skills available today but I would recommend Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet’s Supervision in the Helping Professions (2000) as a stimulating and practical background text.
The points raised above have drawn attention to five key principles:
I would recommend, therefore, that leaders work through the simple questions below and ask team members for honest feedback:
1. How would I and others assess my leadership approach against the categories in figure 1 above?
2. What are the real-work circumstances under which my natural approach would be ineffective or detrimental?
3. Which forms of intervention need further development to increase my confidence and competence?
As a result of doing so, leaders are able to produce a priority list for their own personal development planning purposes. This, in turn, provides a basis for strengthening their capability to adapt to changing circumstances and deal effectively with team challenges of the future.