Are You a Good Coach? An Effective Coach? HBR Says You Might Not Be


Some colleagues recently sent me a Harvard Business Review article that has a fairly accusatory title, although many readers might think it applies to other managers:

Most Managers Don't Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn.

It's a common dynamic for people to overstate their own abilities. When it comes to “coaching” in the workplace, the HBR article says:

“…managers tend to think they're coaching when they're actually just telling their employees what to do.”

I've made the mistake of pushing solutions on others. Or, I should say “trying to push solutions” because pushing tends not to work. This is something I reflected on in my chapters from Practicing Lean.

As I've really come to appreciate from my study of (and attempts to practice) “Motivational Interviewing” in the workplace is this idea, that comes from clinical counseling, that telling others to do something leads to natural pushback — the person you're coaching will naturally respond with reasons why they should not change. The best predictor of change is a person verbalizing “change talk” and their intent (or readiness) to take action. A coach should be careful to not provoke “sustain talk,” there the coachee ends up talking themselves out of change.

Telling others to do something leads to natural pushback -- the person you're coaching will naturally respond with reasons why they should not change. This is not helpful. Share on X

Rather than beating ourselves up for telling others what to do, we can also reflect on how something called “the righting reflex” is also human nature. It's natural and not surprising that well-intended people would try to tell others what to do, especially when they're seen as an expert.

Last year, at the Lean Coaching Summit, I saw a group from a non-profit called Beyond Emancipation.

One of the leaders, pictured below, said (while not framing it as Motivational Interviewing):

“I spent eight years telling foster kids what to do… and it was exhausting.”

It was not only exhausting, it was ineffective, they said. When you're telling others what to do, you might get compliance instead of real change.

When you're telling others what to do, you might get compliance instead of real change. Share on X

I give them a lot of credit that they learned and adjusted their approach, coming to the belief and practice:

“We believe that the person closest to the problem is closest to the solution.”

Effective coaching is based on drawing out ideas (and motivations) from others. Kaizen (continuous improvement) and Lean management principles certainly emphasize that the people closest to the work are closest to the solution (at least for local problems within their own work — we can't expect frontline staff to solve all of the systemic big-picture issues).

Some similar thoughts from the HBR piece:

“According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.”

I hear similar talk in the “Lean coaching” community — helping others learn instead of telling them answers. John Shook has talked about this for a long time — the idea of not robbing others of the opportunity to learn and grow by coming up with their own ideas.

Motivational Interviewing teaches us that the part of our brain that's connecting to taking action gets far more highly activated when it's OUR own idea. In the workplace, I think that means giving input and participating in group improvement activities, instead of everybody doing their own thing.

I sometimes, though, hearing people talking about motivations and “the why.” That's good. But, too often, we interfere with the change process by telling others what their motivation should be. That's not as effective as asking or evoking (drawing out) the motivations that exist inside that person you're trying to help.

I inadvertently learned that lesson about ten years ago. I was brought in as a consultant (I'd like to think “coach”) for a hospital lab. The director and chief pathologist had their ideas about the goals for the Lean work we'd do together.

I thought it might be a good idea to have a meeting with the microbiology team members and manager. Instead of telling them I was brought in for a certain purpose and method, I asked very open-ended questions, basically:

“What should we work on together to improve? What are your goals? What's important to you?”

The team members basically gave the same answers as might have been told to them by the lab leaders or myself, including:

  • We want to get home on time (which meant less overtime, a management goal)
  • It's too hard to get our work done, so we should make it easier (improving efficiency and reducing overtime, congruent with management's goals)
  • It's important for our patients and the doctors that we do our work the right way, with the best quality and fewest errors (also aligned with management's goals)
  • We want a safer workplace, including ergonomics (also important to management)

Me asking them questions and getting them to articulate the goals got this initiative off to a great start. It was my job to teach some methods and coach them on the how once they had identified the what, why, and when. It was their Lean initiative and that's why they're still continuing to practice Lean and to continuously improve (at least this was the case the last time I was there a year ago or so).

Again, from HBR:

Our research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches. We focused on analyzing the following nine leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and our own practical experiences of leadership coaching:

  • “listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach”

This is very much aligned with Motivational Interviewing – amazingly so. Listening, empathy, letting them develop their own solution, pointing out strengths (“affirmations”)… those are core elements of M.I. Lean coaching often emphasizes “open ended questions” or Socratic questioning. That's one component of what M.I. calls OARS:

  • Open-ended questions
  • Affirmations
  • Reflections
  • Summaries

M.I. teaches us that we don't have to limit ourselves to asking questions. A coach should be saying things that elicit more “change talk” from the person being helped. That includes statements like, “Being more efficient is important to you” as a statement, not a question.

The idea that coaches can be taught and developed reminds me also of the “Job Relations” component of the “Training Within Industry” methodology, which dates back to World War II. Good ideas are good ideas, regardless of the source.

Anyway, check out the HBR article. What do you think?

If you want to learn more about M.I., I highly recommend the webinar that Ron Oslin (a former Toyota leader) gave for LEI last week. I listened to it yet again the other day (and I enjoyed Ron's full day class at the Lean Coaching Summit).

And there are more links to my blog posts and podcasts via this page about Motivational Interviewing on

And here is a webinar recording of a talk I gave last week on this topic at the KaiNexus User Conference.

Podcast #292 – The Co-Authors of “Motivational Interviewing for Leadership”

Podcast #306 – Mark D. Valenti, Motivational Interviewing and Health System Improvement



What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articlePodcast #317 – Patricia Morrill, “The Perils of Uncoordinated Care”
Next articleTQM at Toyota and the Influence on Lean – Past and Present, Japan and U.S.
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. RE: “…managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.” I agree that managers should include coaching and teaching as part of their core responsibilities. That is what I did when I was a manger in industry. But none of my peers thought that was what they should be doing. Telling people what to do is consistent with efforts – conscious or not – to maintain social inequality in hierarchies. Of course things can change over time, but telling people what to do is a type of vested right of people higher up in the hierarchy, which is not easily given up.

  2. As always Mark… On point and timely. I’ve been reflecting on how I can help a son that is in college and seems to have no direction and your article helped me understand that I’ve been telling him what to do and how to do it. I have not been listening and letting him come up with his own solutions, and therefore he is not motivated to change. I love that Lean principles are applicable to our personal lives. We don’t just do Lean… We live Lean.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.