As our knowledge of the brain’s functions increases, we can redesign our mindsets and environments. Amy Brann takes a closer look at neuroscience. This issue: Why organisations should replace managers with coaches


In a recent interview, Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40, stated “We have coaches, not managers” (https://bit.ly/3Pv1BdU)

It’s a bold statement.

It’s also one that speaks to what, for many years, people (ourselves included) have been pushing for. That is, to be a really good manager you need to have a whole set of coaching skills that also make you a really
good coach.

But it also sparks one of those make-you-think-what-if questions.

What if companies didn’t have great managers who were great coaches but instead had great coaches who were great managers?

In other words, it’s not so much about having managers who coach, it’s about having coaches who manage. And while you might think this is all just a matter of semantics, it’s also the case that ‘semantics’ often underpin our mindframes and behaviour.


What are mindframes and why do they matter?

Mindframing is, in simple terms, the way you think about something. It creates the lens, or the ‘frame’, through which you view yourself, your thoughts and the world around you.

A classic example is growth mindset – where you can see the world through the lens of a growth mindset, or through the lens of a fixed mindset. And by applying this different lens to a given situation, it fundamentally influences the way you behave – do you persevere in the face of challenge or do you give up before you’ve really started so as to avoid possible failure?

Another example comes from the world of parenting, where Alison Gopnik (https://bit.ly/3JYtpGg) suggests that parents can be “carpenters” who shape or “gardeners” who tend. If you view yourself and your child through the lens of being a “carpenter”, the way you parent is likely to be considerably different from someone who views themselves through the lens of being a “gardener”.

Mindframes are therefore an incredibly powerful driver of our behaviour, decisions and life and work outcomes.


Managers who coach vs coaches who manage

When it comes to managing vs coaching, many organisations operate (or aspire to operate) through the lens or mindframe of having managers who coach – where their managers are also strong at coaching their people and teams.

But what if we applied this alternative lens to an organisation?

Where they didn’t have managers per se, but they had coaches who had great management skills. Where the team was led by the coach not the manager. Where they hired coaches not managers.

What difference does this mindframe make to the way people behave towards their team? To the conversations they have? To the way they delegate tasks? To the way they give feedback?

And, just as importantly, what difference does this mindframe shift make to the people in that team? To their engagement and productivity? To how valued they feel? To their sense of belonging?

Answers to questions like these start to reveal themselves when we consider what’s different between managing and coaching.

If you look at the definition of “manage” in the Cambridge dictionary, it states: “to be responsible for controlling or organising someone or something, especially a business or employees”, while coach is defined as “someone whose job is to teach people to improve at a sport, skill, or school subject”, or in our world “someone who facilitates self-directed neuroplasticity.”

And while there are various definitions out there, the difference between someone who “controls and organises” and someone who “facilitates self-directed neuroplasticity”, is vast.


Neuroplasticity at the heart of coaching and managing

Let’s look at the concept of neuroplasticity for a moment.

It’s something that underpins the way we all learn and develop over our lifetime. Without neuroplasticity we can’t learn new things. We can’t develop an expertise. We can’t associate one thing with another.

From a biological perspective, neuroplasticity happens at synapses – the neurobiological structure that connects one brain cell with another – allowing them to ‘talk’ to each other. Neuroplasticity is the process of fine-tuning these connections – growing new ones, disconnecting old ones or strengthening or weakening existing ones. And it‘s this neural flexibility which helps us master a new technology, learn a new skill, develop an expertise, or successfully adapt ourselves into a new role or situation at work.

As a coach, neuroplasticity is the underlying foundation that’s woven through every conversation and interaction. It’s what coaches capitalise on to bring about change and to transition someone from current point A to desired point B. It puts learning and development at the heart of what they do.

And the result?

It leaves people feeling empowered and fulfilled. It gives people the satisfaction that they are achieving their full potential. It makes them feel valued and valuable. All concepts that are likely to be quite far removed from what someone might feel if they are being ‘managed’ in the traditional sense.

And when an organisation’s success and performance ultimately depend on getting the very best out of each and every one of their employees, it makes sense that this concept of facilitating neuroplasticity and self-learning should be woven through every interaction or conversation that a manager has with their team members.

Because if people have the potential to become a better version of themselves, as shown by the science of neuroplasticity, why wouldn’t an organisation want to make sure their managers have the skills to unlock this?


Shifting the lens

The problem is that many organisations still apply a lens that weighs too heavily on the managing side of things – on being task-orientated rather than people-orientated, on controlling and organising rather than coaching and developing.

They haven’t yet shifted their lens and equipped their managers with the coaching skills that are so effective at developing potential and therefore improving organisational performance. And it’s not even
on their radar that they should perhaps be thinking of their managers as coaches who manage, rather than managers who coach.

But shifting this lens and equipping managers with these coaching skills takes time. Just as it might take a coach a while to develop the right people management skills, it takes a while – and a good dose of practice – for managers to get really good at having the coaching conversations with their team members that really help to facilitate the self-directed neuroplasticity that unlocks potential. Practice that ensures they know what are the best kinds of questions to ask and how to ask them or when to listen and when to give feedback.

More importantly, managers shouldn’t be expected to go it alone when it comes to learning these skills and shifting their lens. They need to be given the resources, time and space to have this practice.

And having just finished helping a group of managers develop their coaching skills over a series of ten highly focused practice sessions, we know just how revolutionary this practice-based training can be for the performance, engagement and wellbeing of their teams.


The future

So, what will the future of work look like in five years’ time? Ten years? Will the concept of a manager be obsolete?

Only time will tell. But I’ll leave you with one other interesting fact about WD-40 – the company that has no managers, only coaches:

It has a 93% employee engagement – 93%.

And while it’s only a number, WD-40 is obviously getting something right.


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