The manager as coach: when your people need more support

By Elisabeth Goodman, 6th January 2021

So, another year, another lockdown. We all need as much support to get us through this as we can get. But what kind of support, when, how and how much?

Colin Fisher and colleagues (Fisher, C.M., Amabile, T.M. and Pillemer, J. 2021) have some wonderful insights to share with us from their 10 year research of how leaders can effectively help their teams without micro-managing!

The challenge of knowing if and when to provide support, and in what form

As Fisher et al rightly point out, the remote, flexible and other ways of working prevalent at this time mean that teams are seldom all co-located at work. This means that it’s harder for managers or leaders to be easily aware of if and when their team members need support. When they do provide support, it can also be harder to do so in a way that is totally a-tuned to what the team or the individual needs.

I’ve heard others say that it can be hard to provide the right kind of training to people when not co-located, because you can’t easily spot what they can and can not do, or what do or do not know. And it’s harder to ‘show’ as opposed to just ‘tell’.

For a manager seeking to adopt a more coaching style approach, where the emphasis is on drawing out what an individual knows, rather than giving them solutions, the challenge might also be in knowing when to swap to a more mentoring or teaching mode.

Last but not least, different people will want different types of support to help them deal with greater isolation resulting from the current pandemic. The challenge for the leader or manager is being clear about the actual nature of the support needed – and not provide too much or too little!

So what’s the answer?

Fisher et al (2021) conducted their studies with a consultancy firm, a design firm, and 124 groups in a behavioural research setting. The context was complex cognitive tasks and entrepreneurial decisions.

They highlighted some key behaviours and principles that led to effective supporting behaviours by leaders and managers:

1. Starting with a coaching-style approach

The effective leaders did not simply wade in with advice and other forms of more directive support. Instead, they:

  • listened to what the individuals or teams were saying about what their issues were
  • asked clarifying questions to aid their own and the team members’ understanding
  • adopted a collaborative approach
  • made their intentions clear

As the authors point out, the manager to team member relationship is a complex one. A manager is also responsible for the evaluation associated with performance reviews. For a team member to ask for support can feel vulnerable. If a manager offers unsolicited support, however well meant, it can put an individual on the defensive.

Adopting a coaching-style approach as described above could help to mitigate some of these risks.

2. Adopting a ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ style

Fisher et al (2021) advocate three key strategies, which have this ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ style in common:

  • Picking the right time to intervene: waiting until people have actually begun the work, so that they have an understanding of the work and of the issues involved. They will then be in a position to ask for help if and when they need it, and it will also be clearer to both parties as to what kind of help is needed.
  • Making it clear, from the start, that you are available to help – and what form that help can take.
  • Providing the right form of intervention as and when it is needed. The authors talk about “the rhythm of involvement” taking two alternative forms:
    • “concentrated guidance” over a short period of time to support specific tasks but still without taking over
    • “path clearing” again potentially hands on but brief and intermittent

Concluding thoughts

I find it interesting to consider the above in the context of two four-box models:

Situational coaching as described by Ibarra and Scoular (2019) – does Fisher et al’s approach seem more like situational coaching? It certainly has a strong under-tone of starting from a “non-directive” mode or more conventional coaching approach, but allowing for a switch into any of the other three modes described by Ibarra and Scoular as the situation demands.

The situational leadership model (see for example The Ken Blanchard Companies, n.d.), where the “supporting” / “coaching” quadrants seem to relate closely to Fisher et al’s approach.

All of the above, for me, would also seem to align well with an effective approach to delegation. Managers often struggle with if and how to intervene if the work is not going as planned. Fisher et al’s recommended strategies would seem to address these concerns.

All in all, Fisher et al’s research would seem to provide some very helpful guidance for leaders and managers in terms of if, when and how to provide support. Team members could benefit from their guidance too, in terms of knowing how they might influence their managers to provide the type of support that they need.

A closing message for me though, is the importance of staying in touch, of communicating regularly, of staying informed: to provide support in general terms, and to make it easier to judge if, when and how more specific support might be needed.



Fisher, C.M., Amabile, T.M. & Pillemer, J. (2021). How to help (without micromanaging). New research points to three strategies. Harvard Business Review, January – February, 123-127

Goodman, E. (2019). The manager as coach: practising situational coaching. Retrieved from

The Ken Blanchard Companies (n.d.). The SLII model. Leadership styles. Retrieved from

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman, ACC is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through coaching, courses and workshops, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.

She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to be true to themselves and exercise choice in the workplace by enhancing their leadership / management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Coaching (ACC – International Coaching Federation), Change Management, Lean Sigma, Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is also a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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