Coaching on the Job

Recently, I had the honor of working with a team of nurse leaders who are eager to incorporate coaching skills into their everyday work. Their learning journey offers valuable lessons for us all.

Here is some relevant background: coaching has “come of age” in healthcare and nursing leadership in the last 10 years. In countless health systems, coaching is no longer considered punitive or the sole province of poor performers. In fact, in many venues, coaching is a reward for good performance and increased leadership responsibility.

These statements refer to formal coaching, meaning engagements in which an internal or external, professionally trained coach is made available to a manager or leader. But what about “everyday” coaching for the rest of us? Why should we care about incorporating “everyday” coaching skills into our portfolio of management capabilities? Here are just three of many reasons:

  1. In our field, big changes are coming or already here. We must all adapt to remain effective, but for some employees, adjusting will not be easy. Leaders with a genuine interest in obtaining coaching skills can facilitate meaningful dialogue and learning in others. These efforts forge stronger bonds that help staff members stay engaged as they manage profound shifts in their work.
  2. The “war for talent” is back. This term was first coined by McKinsey and Co. in their groundbreaking 2001 book.1 Although much has changed since then, today’s war for talent is just as real. Why? Chief among the reasons is that skilled workers have a broad array of work options today. For healthcare organizations, employee engagement is not just a good idea, it’s imperative if we want to grow and keep our people.
  3. Even if the war for talent weren’t back, the cost of employee disengagement and turnover is not going down. We continue to sacrifice millions in lost productivity when employees are not using their full complement of skills and energy.

So, what are some basic coaching skills that foster growth and engagement with others? In my experience, practicing just these few behaviors provides significant benefit for all:

  • Clear, open communication. The focus here is on asking open-ended questions and listening genuinely to the answers. Humans are best equipped to listen openly when we are not judging the person or their comments before they are uttered. Leaders can learn a lot when we stop asking yes or no questions and start asking sincerely curious questions that start with “how” or “what.” This is not to suggest that all conversations with employees need to eliminate judgments and be curious questions that start with these words. Leaders are paid for their judgments, but those judgments are very limiting when they are the only tools in the toolbox.
  • Monitoring ourselves. When we coach, we need to be mindful of who we are “being” in the conversation. I mentioned judgment above, but we also want to consider whether we are projecting our answers or our own situations onto our coaching partner (the “coachee”). Are we projecting how we would feel if we were the other person? Are we making assumptions about what their actions mean? These questions are always important, but as we become more sensitive to diversity and its many dimensions, monitoring our own projections and assumptions moves to center stage when we coach.
  • Understanding resistance. It’s helpful to remember that resistance is normal. Change of any size is not easy for many people, and as managers, it is beneficial to “normalize” pushback before we start to resist the resisters. From a coaching standpoint, our job as a manager is to understand the resistance and to help employees move through it so they can become more engaged and productive. Understanding resistance is most often achieved by being curious and listening. When we do these things, we may learn something important about the change, and we will certainly learn something important about the individual who is resisting. No matter what, we will want to attend to the resistance. Left to its own devices, resistance can become toxic to the individual and the team— resisters love to enroll others so they have company in their state of discontent.
  • Moving ahead. Coaching is not coaching if there is no active component. What is the follow-up? What is your coachee going to practice or do differently, even just once, as a result of your conversation? Help your coachee grow by encouraging him or her to try something new. Be an accountability partner (if you wish) and set up a follow-up conversation to see how the experiment went. Support success if it went well. Be patient if it didn’t.

Here are a few pitfalls to be aware of when you coach.

  1. Notice whose agenda you are coaching. As manager, it may well be yours, and if it is, be transparent with your coachee about this. Sometimes novice coaches lead with their own agenda, but they ask questions that suggest they want to work with the coachee’s agenda. This can be confusing for the coachee, at best, and at worst, it will be perceived as insincere and manipulative.
  2. Watch for “overtelling.” In my experience, most nurse leaders have a well-developed muscle named “I have the answer.” This well-toned capacity is vital to the role of nurse leader. But, like any strength, this one can be overused when we are coaching to facilitate growth and learning in others.
  3. Be patient. Some leaders say they are natural coaches. That may be true, but being curious, not leading with judgments, and not telling run counter to the work that many leaders do every day. When we are learning a new skill, it is easy to become frustrated with ourselves and revert to old behaviors. Don’t worry; with coaching as with many other skills, practice makes us a lot better.
  4. Coaching is not a hammer and every problem is not a nail. When managers learn to coach, they often try coaching out on every challenge. Although it is perfect for many situations, coaching is not the solution for everything a leader encounters.

If you are already on the road to using good coaching skills in your work, congratulations. If you are just starting out, good luck and best wishes. Coaching is a skill worth honing.


  1. Michaels E, Handfield-Jones H, Axelrod B. The War for Talent. Harvard Cambridge, MA: Business Review Press; 2001.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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