The Direct-Report Whisperer: The Manager’s Role as Coach and Counselor

Managers in today’s work culture are presumed to be socially multi-talented. They presumably possess the skills to teach, mentor, monitor, advise, and nurture their direct-reports. The demands at the office oblige the manager to seamlessly shift from one role to the next.

Managers in today’s work culture are presumed to be socially multi-talented. They presumably possess the skills to teach, mentor, monitor, advise, and nurture their direct-reports. The demands at the office oblige the manager to seamlessly shift from one role to the next. Two primary roles that managers enact every day are coach and counselor. Though they are different roles, with different methods and priorities, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two are symbiotic and combine to make the manager more adept.

The purpose and process of coaching and counseling are different. Coaching is an ongoing conversation between a manager and her direct-report that aims to establish a set of behaviors to follow toward a specified goal. It is a practical approach to getting results and establishing accountability. Coaching sets behavioral parameters to enable the coachee to thrive by using specified tactics and strategies. The coach directs the process toward what she considers optimal performance. Her role is to be attuned to the coachee’s performance according to task-related metrics. Coaching leans toward output, productivity, and development.

Counseling is also an ongoing conversation between a manager and her direct-report. It is different than coaching because the direct-report has become a help-seeker who considers the coach to be sensitive to issues beyond strategies and tactics. He seeks her emotional support and is convinced that it is necessary for his success. The help-seeker directs the conversation toward confronting his negative emotions and anticipates a resolution at the hands of his supremely wise manager, without which his performance will suffer. Counseling leans toward emotional input from the direct-report, without which a strong working alliance cannot be implemented.

A good manager provides both coaching and counseling according to the demands of the situation. She seeks every opportunity to improve her understanding of these roles and how best to apply them. The common core of both roles allows her to view her direct-report in a more holistic and dynamic way. Both coaching and counseling require that the manager ask open-ended questions to uncover what the direct-report is seeing, feeling, thinking, and doing. Listening is the paramount skill; its opposite is presumption. When listening, we genuinely want to understand another person’s perspective, which makes them unique. With this in mind, a manager can more precisely guide the person toward what he considers meaningful and purposeful at work. It’s a different matter when her outlook is based on presumption. The words coming from the other person are merely undifferentiated noise because everyone is the same. Solutions are thus the tried and true impositions that the manager has always and will always use. If the direct-report can’t cope, then he’s to blame.

Coaching and counseling are social skills. The foundation of any social interaction is empathy: the willingness to discover another’s perspective and accept its validity. Listening and empathy are the skills that enable a manager to coach and counsel; without them, managing is simply manipulating.

Negative emotions have negative consequences at work

We work in social environments and emotion is a social force. Emotion connects us and divides us. It inspires us and discourages us. It’s an adhesive, sticking to us from one context to the next. We cannot leave our emotions at home when we go to the office. Bringing joyful sentiments to work is great for the office environment and the organization’s benefit. Not much needs to be done regarding positive emotions, other than to appreciate and preserve them. The private nature of positive emotions doesn’t debilitate a worker’s performance. On the contrary, it improves it.

Negative emotions are a different matter. A private ordeal that has caused negative emotion is part of an employee’s day at the office as much as the task at hand is. Negative emotions caused by personal circumstances easily leak into life at the office, and vice-versa. Turmoil breaks through the presumed barriers between home and office.

Regular interpersonal contact at the office makes it difficult to bury one’s head in the sand to avoid the messiness of emotions. Most of us aren’t very convincing when we attempt to mask our emotions. At the office, moods linger in the air like contagions. This is why leadership is required. Often the manager finds herself contemplating what’s going on in the heads of her direct-reports.

There is no doubt that negative emotions can cloud thinking and smother motivation. Whether caused by work or private life, negative emotions hurt the organization’s bottom line. A manager cannot avoid the reality that people are too often incubators for negative emotions.

A manager will confront her direct-report’s negative emotions either explicitly (he directly seeks her help) or implicitly (he signals that he needs help). Research has shown that the majority of emotional support situations are the product of help-seeking by the employee. One reason for this is that the direct-report considers emotional support to be part of the manager’s role. He expects his feelings to be considered and addressed. Such an exchange has been described as parental (see Anand et. al.).

The manager, on the contrary, considers emotional support to be a situational incident in which she goes above and beyond what her role requires. She considers this exchange to be transactional, a way to advance the organization’s interests by preventing negative outcomes, such as a drop in employee performance, office malaise, or decreased customer satisfaction. After helping in such an extraordinary manner, the manager expects the direct-report to have greater commitment to the organization, heightened appreciation for the job, and gratitude for the emotional help received. Most often these expectations are not met. If ignored, this discrepancy between perceived roles and social expectations can cause distrust.

Emotions are part of work life

Often people in the business world refer to counseling approaches as “touchy-feely.” They think a job is something that is done with only the practical and reasonable parts of the brain. Implicit in this description is the notion that work is a place in which people hide their emotions, and if they fail to, distracting drama ensues. A division between personal and work life is imagined such that private suffering or elation has no bearing on the daily operation of a job. This is absolutely untrue.

It is certainly in the organization’s best interest to limit emotional seepage from private life into work life. Counseling and collegial friendships open the door for conversations about emotions and subsequent nurturing responses. It is inevitable that people who work in the same office will perceive their co-worker’s emotional state and want to help. While some emotional exchange is healthy and unavoidable, too much emotional support from a superior to a subordinate can cause dependence, role distortion, unproductive ruminations, and waste of the employee’s and manager’s time.

You may have a couch in your office, but you aren’t Freud

Even among psychological professionals, it takes an enormous amount of training, practice, and reflection to understand someone’s psyche in a way that is at the very least not distortedly prejudicial and harmful. This is too often not recognized in leadership/management literature. As a way to organize the chaos of idiosyncrasy, many authors define rudimentary types of mentalities and use these as paradigms to determine how the manager should manipulate her subordinates. With types and labels in mind, the manager is supposed to diagnose her direct-report’s psyche, and then proceed with her managerial tactics. Thus the manager can respond to an ‘introvert’ or ‘analyzer’ with a simple specified series of approaches. The unwanted result of typifying based on a supposed personality type is heavy-handedness, a relationship in which the manager believes she knows the employee better than he knows himself. This dynamic stifles development and obstructs any deepening of the manager’s perspective.

Another risk during counseling is that emotional support might not be wanted. Each person is unique, especially when it comes to coping with negative emotions. Offering help based on presumed symptoms could signal to the employee that he is weak and dependent on someone else’s tutelage, and that his disposition proclaims his misery. When help is needed and given, moreover, there is a risk that the relationship will undermine the direct-report’s self-determination and self-regulation. He might expect his manager to solve all his problems and magically disperse the specter of his burdensome emotions.

What is to be done?

I’ve said coaching and counseling co-exist in conversations between a manager and direct-report. Counseling should be understated and used cautiously because a manager is not qualified to diagnose her direct report’s emotional condition. What she can do is follow simple social skills, beginning with empathizing with the other person, truly listening to understand rather than judge, and offering suggestions that she explicitly explains are not coming from a trained psychological professional, but a caring co-worker. The counseling isn’t the purpose of the conversation; setting the stage for coaching is.

Most importantly, the manager should stick to her training as a coach and employ it toward the direct-report’s specific tasks. To do so, she should adopt specific coaching behaviors to structure the relationship. These include: rapport building, boundary setting, providing content, regulating motivation, and coaching authentically (see Coultas et. al.). The disorderly force of emotion can be contained such that, while not being suppressed, it is openly acknowledged but not prioritized.

A manager should be prepared to offer coaching and counseling around key moments—for example, job appraisals, feedback sessions, important projects, or sales presentations. How she prepares for these interactions will contribute to her direct-report’s performance and subsequent mentality. Although she is not a psychiatrist, the manager must accept that her employees expect and nearly demand that she be there for them in the hour of need. If she successfully navigates these crucial moments, research shows, her employees will view her as more charismatic, visionary, and competent. Providing emotional support for her employees to achieve the satisfaction of their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness will increase their performance and thereby keep customers happy.

I’m not alone in thinking that coaching and counseling should be done together. Many writers consider an emotional connection to be the link between coach and coachee. Specific behaviors are required, these authors assert, to establish a productive alliance. During a coaching/counseling session, the coach is supposed to listen to her direct-report’s emotional expressions, validate his perceptions as acceptable and worthy of attention, reframe them in a way that alters his perspective and transforms how he feels, and finally advise him about future tactics to cope with and eventually overcome performance impairing emotions. This process has the added benefit of encouraging the employee to be insightful toward his inner world (see Coultas et. al.).

Some theorists argue that “emotional intelligence”—consisting of self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, and social awareness—is essential to being a superior leader and manager (see Boyatzis et al.). The leader’s emotional intelligence is the primary driver of success because it allows her to set the conditions for how work is conducted, perceived, and given meaning and purpose. This function is highly crucial and therefore it requires diligence and determination. She must be prepared to coach or counsel at any moment during the day. There’s no getting around the fact that her superior status in the hierarchy justifies her subordinates seeking all manner of assistance from her. Like it or not, she has to become a direct-report whisperer.

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Dana Perkins
Executive Vice-President – Sales and Consulting



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