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Upon Reflection: A Better Way to Train Managers (to be Better Managers)

Originally published December 2022 by Training Industry Magazine

Two facilitators are role playing. They’ve asked the executives in their class to observe, then offer suggestions for improvement. One facilitator, as the manager, is giving feedback to the other, who plays a recent transfer to the team.  

“You seem to be carrying a chip on your shoulder. I’m hearing words like ‘lethargy,’ ‘uncommitted,’ and ‘uninterested’ used to describe your performance. I’m sure you understand that our staff cannot have those characteristics. 

“I know you want to talk about the how you felt mistreated on your last team. But look, I am not familiar with the specifics of those problems. Let’s don’t rehash the past. I want to talk about you today, and your future in the company.”

The “manager” continues in this vein for a while, then turns to participants and says, “So, how did I do?” The participants, as “coaches,” promptly explain what the manager did wrong, as the other facilitator (who played the role of the “recent transfer”) captures verbatim comments.  

“You should have asked more questions,” one says. Others chime in. “You were too blunt.” “Yes, you need to be more empathetic.” “You didn’t give them any examples.” “That’s right, you didn’t make it concrete enough.” The facilitator, as manager, says, “Oh, I see. I didn’t ask enough questions. I should be more concrete. I should show more compassion. OK, let me see if I can do that. What else?” Feedback continues. 

Before too long, a participant “coach” cracks a wry smile and points to the list of verbatims. “I get it now. We’ve been doing the same thing to you as you did to your report!” 

Managers, of all levels of experience, usually know how to do the job their direct reports do, and how to tell them when they are doing it well or not. What they don’t necessarily do well: Encourage those they manage to challenge and test the assumptions that keep them from successfully changing their behavior and thus improving their results. Simply providing managers with an abbreviated “express” version of the training received by their direct reports doesn’t do much to change how they think and act.

The persistence of default reflexes. 

For instance, a technology company recognized the need to train managers in its supply chain group differently — to go beyond simply describing to managers the frameworks and tools taught to their reports, or even more thoroughly training them in it. Now, instead, supply chain team and department leaders undergo an episodic “simulation” that plays out over five weeks. Each week these managers confront a dynamic, evolving situation — such as a challenging supplier or a difficult internal stakeholder. Managers then work in small groups to coach one of their direct reports using a selection of their direct reports’ tools and frameworks. They prepare and discuss which tools they will use. Then they role play coaching someone who plays the junior colleague. A facilitator observes, intervening occasionally with a question, and then debriefs the experience. This basic structure is repeated each week, until the final one when they undertake a deeper debrief.

In these very true-to-life situations, participants generally are quite engaged. Yet it is remarkable how consistently (just as in the role play example we started with) they default to using the tools and frameworks to advise (or direct) their junior colleague what to do. They use a value chain tool to formulate a strategy. Or a stakeholder mapping tool to come up with an influence plan. Or their negotiation preparation tool, so they can instruct the negotiator how to approach their supplier. In doing so, managers demonstrate their mastery over the material — and how to carry out instructions — yet fail to reflect upon the ways they can get better results. Instead of enabling their direct report to do better, they merely tell them what to do.

The power of pausing to reflect.

To help managers get better at helping their direct reports get better, we pause them briefly (as they coach their colleague) and intervene with a few questions that encourage reflection. The point is not to call them out as “doing it wrong.” Rather, we ask them to voice what they are hoping will happen next (or the next time their colleague faces such a situation), and to reflect on how likely it is (or is not) that their actions will produce outcome they seek. Managers then continue to coach as they see fit. It is fascinating to see the lightbulb turn on — just as it did for the insightful participant in the opening example above — as managers realize their actions are not likely to yield the desired results, so they need to reconsider their approach. 

This reflection-driven approach — regularly leading to enlightening “ah-ha” moments — can be embedded into action learning, too. As a capstone to a 12-week learning journey at an ecommerce company, each participant was asked to identify a leadership development challenge — an important business problem or opportunity — that they will take responsibility to address and solve. The challenge — e.g., getting a critical team project back on track and budget — serves as a vehicle for learning and to deliver measurable business results. Participants meet biweekly over eight weeks, in smaller learning sets, but do not offer advice or directly help colleagues solve their chosen problems. Instead, they help stimulate each other’s thinking by iterating through a learning cycle of plan, act, reflect, conclude. 

Participants take turns presenting their project progress — and expressing their concerns and feelings — as others in their learning set ask insightful questions, offer support, and challenge assumptions. Each presenter summarizes insights they’ve gleaned, then explores options and action steps to take before the next meeting. At the end of the eight weeks, each participant submits an achievement story outlining the barriers they overcame both organizationally and personally, the actions they took, results achieved, what they learned, and how they grew.

Thinking differently—with others, and for oneself.

There is a cascade effect of better outcomes when managers, in any role, are trained and coached to think differently about problems, versus merely instructed on the right way to solve them. 

1.    Managers learn to avoid reflexively defaulting to “the answer.” Instead, they consider their objective — for their direct report to do better — and ask themselves what they could do to influence that.

2.    Managers deepen their understanding—not just of the substantive problem, but of how they can help direct reports improve their own ability to diagnose and respond to challenges.

3.    Managers transfer this approach to their teams. Managers harness the power of insightful questions as a catalyst to learning, leveraging the technique to stimulate thinking and problem solving in their teams.

So now you tell us … how did we do?

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