Mastering Leadership: The Coaching vs. Answer-Giving Dilemma

  1. Home
  2. Business
  3. Mastering Leadership: The Coaching vs. Answer-Giving Dilemma

Mastering Leadership: The Coaching vs. Answer-Giving Dilemma



Are you keen to develop your team but find yourself falling into the habit of offering solutions left and right?

While “Leader as Coach” has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years, it has also, for many leaders, become another stick with which to beat ourselves as we wrestle with the dilemma of when to ask questions and when to start giving answers, with many inadvertently falling into the latter category of consistently giving answers.

In fairness, I’ve heard many good arguments for this:

  • It saves time.
  • My team expect me to have the answers.
  • I feel good when I’m providing solutions.

However, in the long run, the opposite is true:

Saving time: By empowering your team to tap into their knowledge, skill, and ultimately their ability to find the answer somewhere else, rather than consistently asking you, or worse still, holding off on taking action/making decisions, you will get to a point where you have a team who can work competently and independently, freeing you up to work on more important matters.

My team expect me to have the answers: “What starts as gratitude quickly becomes dependency and ends as entitlement,” Robert Harris. If it has gotten to the stage where your team expect you always to have the answers, you have already ended up in phase two of that equation: dependency. Consider this: What kind of team will you end up with when people feel entitled always to be given the answer and are never really challenged to think up complex solutions because you do it for them?

I feel good when I’m providing solutions: Let’s be honest: Who doesn’t love a good dopamine hit? But your team aren’t responsible for your happy hormone levels. Consider how much better you will feel when you have a highly functional team that brings solutions rather than questions, displays real confidence and self-belief, and fundamentally exercises the level of competence and expertise they were hired to give.

But I know you know this. The real challenge I’m constantly asked about is:

“I really want to adopt a coaching approach, but sometimes they just don’t know the answer. How do I prevent the merry dance of them wanting the answer and me continually asking questions they don’t have the answer to?

I’m tempted to answer this with a “What do you think?” 🙂 But I won’t. Instead, I’ll explain the difference between coaching and mentoring and why both have a place in your leadership conversations.

Consider this: “Mentors have answers for your questions; coaches have questions for your answers.”

It’s a simple but profound way to understand the difference between these two approaches, and like everything, once you understand well enough, you’re in a position to make better decisions on how to employ each approach and when.

Scenario: Someone asks you about a project they’re working on. You gather some information, using questions to deepen your understanding. They’re stuck on a particular aspect. Instead of answering straight out, you could ask:

  • “What would be the logical approach to this?”
  • “What would you do if I weren’t here to ask?”

They respond “I don’t know”. Invite them to think about it or say, “if you did know, what would the answer be?” Be silent and let them work through it themselves. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but you’re shifting them from not knowing to the possibility that, based on their knowledge and experience, the answer may be in there.

Depending on the response:

  • They might come up with a good solution.
  • They might come up with a partial solution.
  • They might say they’re completely stumped.

If it’s 1 or 2, give them kudos for coming up with it and acknowledge that they can find reasonable solutions without your help. If it’s number 3, you have a few options:

  • “How about we work through it together and brainstorm a few solutions? As you discuss various solutions, ask them what they think. Pros and cons of each solution?”
  • “This is a tricky concept. Would it be useful/good if I share my knowledge, and let’s co-create a solution?”

This scenario demonstrates the use of both a coaching and mentoring approach. So, there are no sticks to beat you with here, just intelligent use of two excellent methods blended helpfully to encourage collaboration yet independent thinking.

That said, if someone comes to you and expects the answer, and all they get is a barrage of probing questions, the experience might fall well short of their expectations (All I wanted was a simple answer!”). So what should you do to avoid this eventuality?

The key here is Clarity. Being transparent about your intended approach lays the foundation for a better experience for both parties. In essence, it’s like charting a course toward a more effective and fulfilling journey of growth.

Here’s what that might sound like:

“OK, let’s talk through this for a moment here. Have a seat. If we use a coaching approach to work through this, would that be OK for you?” In asking and (hopefully) getting permission, you’ve set expectations as to how the conversation will go, and so begins a journey of less answer-giving and more empowerment and independent thinking.

In a nutshell, coaching and mentoring are like two sides of a coin, both valuable in their own right. Sometimes, you’re a “Leader as Coach”; other times, you’re a “Leader as Mentor”, and sometimes you’re both. Sharing experiences and suggesting solutions often form part of a coaching conversation, but it’s always based on equal footing and comes back to a “what do you think?” type question.

So, put that stick away next time you find yourself in the Ask or Tell dilemma. Own your approach. Picture your team developing with newfound confidence, dynamic problem-solving skills, and unwavering decision-making prowess. Now, wouldn’t that be the ultimate feel-good hit?

Here’s to more empowering conversations to lead your team to the next level! Sharon

P.S. Would you like to learn more about how you can elevate your coaching skills as a leader?  Request Your Free Consultation Today

Related Posts