Can managers Coach Their Subordinates?

A good manager can often find ways to provide guidance beyond the basic job management a manager does for a receptive employee. There are, however, some obstacles to the coach/boss relationship. These obstacles do not mean the manager should provide as much guidance as the employee is open to and the relationship allows, but the boundaries should be understood and addressed before considering how much can be done.


Managers are responsible for overseeing the execution of a plan that follows the organization’s mission. This is the first responsibility to the manager – managing. They have an enormous arsenal of tools to choose from, but each manager is constrained by their own soft skill-set. Managers that are excellent at keeping schedules, recognizing roadblocks and helping their teams find solutions to problems, may be less effective at empathy, communication and other skills that are separate from the “execution” oriented skills.

Coaching is a very specific skill and, in the case of the gap of skills, recognizing that is vital. Forcing a coaching relationship when the manager just has not learned those skills can be disastrous. The manager fails miserably by giving the employee bad guidance by misreading or mis-communicating. This poisons the traditional managerial relationship and can impact productivity.

Several years ago I worked for an organization reporting to a manager who was a good executive for the organization. I recognized I need some help in growth and she and I were knocking heads. I approached this manager and requested some coaching. The manager eagerly accepted and I saw this as a win-win for our relationship. Unfortunately, her operational skills did not match her mentoring or coaching skills. Regrettably, whether it was the time or the ability to relate to someone with a technical background (radically different from her own) the experience was unfruitful. It drove a deeper wedge between us and ended with mutual bitterness.


Both parties of a coaching relationship must be willing to participate in that way. An employee may be perfectly happy to work for a manager to complete the jobs to be done, but not interested in accepting coaching for a wide variety of reasons. It could be a lack of trust, interest in growth or realization it is needed, or just a choice to learn from someone else.

This willingness is an issue in both directions. Many managers, who are happy to lead a team, simply do not have the energy, interest or comfort in engaging in a role so different. It could be that way with all subordinates or they may recognize that there are only some members of the team that this engagement is safe or fruitful.

I have seen dozens of these go wrong – the manager who saw potential in the employee but that employee was not ready or willing to accept it. The relationship requires commitments on both side and in one situation I was in, whether the manager was right or not, did not matter. The unwelcome effort exceeded the management relationship and disrupted productivity needlessly.


While many advocates may now be screaming that every manager should learn to be a coach as well – if the above does not dissolve that illusion, hopefully this will.
A coach – coached relationship requires candor and confidence that simply may not be safe or appropriate otherwise. If you adopt the “apprenticeship” idea of coaching which limits coaching to training within a specific skill, then of course it would be safe. But real coaching is open to a broader guidance relationship that goes beyond specific skills. A coach, particularly a life/career coach, needs to be more candid than a manager should be. Conversely, a coach needs to be able to expect candor from the coached that a boss cannot expect.

Consider the following questions – can a manager be expected to ask the questions and get honest answer? A clearly should:

  • Are you happy in your current job?
  • What do you really want in life?
  • What are the obstacles holding you back?
  • What is keeping you from addressing your weaknesses? What is holding you back
  • Are there areas of your life (family, health, social or financial) that are in conflict?

Yet another work situation – an attempt to “help” from a manager to his employee resulted in a bitter breakdown in the work relationship. That effort was perceived as meddling as the manager delved into the personal life of his employee. This pushing put the manager in a bad situation that could have had legal ramifications but definitely destroyed a working rapport.

Mentor – sure / Coach – probably not

There are a hundred ways a good manager can help an employee grow. Mentor-ship relationship, apprenticeship, and traditional manager are all roles that can comfortably fit this relationship. Good managers should look for appropriate ways to help an employee maximize their potential. But a real coach – a life coach is a rare mix for a boss/employee.

Is this self-serving for a professional coach to take this position? Potentially, but if you look at the basic requirements alone of trust, candor and access to the coached person’s life, not to mention that both parties should buy-in, it is easy to see that coaching and bossing are a rare mix.

To learn more about what coaching can do for you, or your employee, we would be happy to provide more information. Whether you are the manager with an employee that could use help in professional growth, or are the employee or manager who is interested in growth for themselves – coaching is a great alternative that can help bring the best performance in the biggest job – life. RPS for more information.