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WHIN Monthly Bulletin

Motivation: reduce over-managing & under-managing

Dr. Angus I. McLeod

The benefits of leading in a ‘coaching style’ for those who work for us are said to include increased pro-activity and self-determination. These results are only likely to be realized if you know when to use coaching-leader interventions. Leading at the wrong time can be counter-productive to both of you. This article explains a methodology for understanding when and with whom to use coaching-leader interventions, with examples.

If you have ever been over-managed or under-managed, you know how demoralizing that is. To what extent are you better at getting the balance right compared to the people you know who got that balance wrong?

Have a look at the management model below. The vertical axis is based upon the level of working ‘independence’ of the person from you. The horizontal scale shows their developmental curve from the lower levels to the highest, right. For completeness, I include an off-chart level Zero (left of the y-axis) for which additional help and support is normally required - that is, a person who is not capable of effective work without specialist support.



A person is independent when their needs for information and support are minimal. They are capable of doing the work and self-resource themselves to satisfy their needs for information and support, in most situations.

At every level, there are clues to the sort of conversation we will have to determine the best way forward, for that individual, in that context. This is important – we do not act on supposition, but check our assumptions by asking questions to provide accurate meaning. Firstly then, we need to focus our attention on the individual to observe or perceive how we think they are doing (Perception). Then we need to test that assumption by asking questions of them (Test) and only then, take appropriate action (Action). A leader may want to consciously go through this process of Perception, Test, Action with all our people in the context of all their major tasks.


Perception, Test Action Cycle

It is important to know that in Levels One through Three, a single person may be at any level in one context at work, but at another level in a different context at work – each requiring different things from us. For those readers familiar with the Situational Leadership model [1], the important of context is similarly vital.


Information is the data, knowledge, people-networks, how-we-do-things, boundaries and experience that we need to achieve most perfectly at our jobs.


Support takes a number of forms. These forms can include recognition, personal-acknowledgement, offering to assist, offering to facilitate, providing resources, boosting confidence and commitment through to success or failure.


If someone knows nothing, then we simply need to tell them what to do, provide lists of actions and know-how. Mentoring adds to this since it can involve more-or-less direct information; it widens the input of information to include examples and stories – to offer new ways of thinking, new choices. One can go further, where an individual is independent enough, questions can be used to encourage them to find new perceptions, new choices and motivated actions.

All of these can be linked:

Tom, I can think of three options we might use here and these are {gives details, 1,2,3}. There may be at least one more I haven’t thought of. Would you like to think of other options and then discuss the pros and cons of each?

Tom, I had a similar problem some years ago and at the time came up with an idea. This was {gives detail}. In addition, I can think of another two options {gives details A,B}. Do any of these give you ideas for what to do now, or is there a better way?

The process provides information for the relative novice within an organization to understand how things are done within the culture and it encourages independent thinking. The benefit of that is that they may need less of your management time in the months to come. Invest now for gain later.

There is a good reason for providing ideas and solutions in threes [2]. Where you offer one solution, the person will typically accept or reject it without further processing. The decision is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based upon their current thinking.

Our minds are adapted to comparing. The yes/no tends to stimulate that simple process. However, we hope to stimulate them into deeper processing. When the mentee is given three solutions, their processing becomes more complicated. With three solutions, several, concurrent comparing-steps are needed:

A or B

B or C

A or C

As the comparing begins, the person will typically give up the comparing process and start to do higher-level processing. Once this happens, it is more likely that they will introduce ideas of their own based upon their own experiences. The result is likely to be a new idea, previously inaccessible to them.


This term is applied to methods of drawing out the latent potential and knowledge in people whether in a 1-2-1 meeting with you or in groups. In this case, information is not normally provided; the premise is that the necessary solution can be developed by enquiring and by their self-reflection. This can be neatly illustrated by considering the process of coaching which is typically facilitation on a 1-2-1 basis.


Coaching is a facilitation process dominated by three ‘Principal Instruments’, these are Questions, Challenge and Silence [3]. Coaching is always goal-oriented. Where an issue is presented, this too will ultimately be converted to a realizable goal.


Questions have many purposes. Typically, at the early stages of an issue or goal-development we use questions to develop perception and choice. Questions include:

  • What other options are there?
  • And if there was another option, what is that option now?
  • And if I had this same challenge, how would you advise me now?
  • Imagine you are an observer in that situation, what is happening?

These are all open questions [4] in that the answers require detail. Later, we may ask questions to get to a single plan of action:

Which of your ideas will work best for you and the department?

After that we will want to test their motivation and be sure that the plan of action is holistically sound and realistic. Again, questions are used:

  • What are the pros and cons of those options?
  • How would that be for you if you did not succeed?
  • What other resources are needed to achieve that?
  • If there is another implication we missed, what is that?
  • And if that does mean more work, what about your private life?

When they are fairly certain and committed to a course of action, it is then useful to use questions again in order to invite them to take a Sensory Journey [5]:

Imagine it’s all done, you have the award, what is that like now?

Notice the change of tense from future-conditional to present, in effect tempting their conscious mind to imagine ‘as if’ the experience is really happening in the present [6].


Whereas questions may invite a new perspective or action, challenges are more pushing than pulling in nature.

Challenges can be statements or questions and are designed to shift perception to another level. Challenge can only be made where there is already a very good, working level of rapport and a willingness to be pushed further into the Stretch Zone. It is from this zone that new perceptions and ideas will spring.

Who says you are hopeless?

Is that slightly hopeless or completely hopeless?

What would someone else need to think and do in order to be that scared?

Not very good at presentation? I have never seen you present, but let’s agree that you are really terrible at presenting and move on to the next item.

The more challenging statements only work if the rapport is excellent. Of course, you risk rapport every time you push a person into the Stretch Zone [7] but that must not deter you.



‘Let us honor silence, the perennial flow of language interrupted by words’
M. Ryan

The most profound perceptions and motivations arise because the coaching-leader has been able to self-reflect (without an interruption from their coaching-leader). These silences can run for several minutes and the person is never (in my experience) aware of that time span because their focus is wholly internal. The self-reflective silence may create a novel solution, great certainty, massive motivation, a great feeling of stupidity for not having thought of the solution before and/or an overwhelming desire to start on their plan instantly. In other words, the most extraordinary convictions and energy arise directly from careful questioning and a silent space in which the person is self-reflecting.

The coaching-leader therefore needs a number of key qualities and skills to work at this level of performance. The skills include productive questioning, rapport-building and managing silence.

The ability to hold that silent space is one that needs practice and confidence to achieve. We run courses to do just that [8] – these explore the power of silence specifically but also, naturally, develop all the skills of coaching-leaders.

To begin with, notice these two things:

Where there is a silence and you have an urge to break that

When you ask a question and a silence follows

If you have discomfort with silence, then it is worthwhile giving yourself permission to stay with silence and practice the management of it by leaving longer silent spaces in conversations. If a person is busy thinking through an answer to your question, then force yourself to be quiet and observe the effect of that.

Silence is enormously powerful. It can be used to help people talk themselves into uncomfortable reality, for example, that it is they and not their people who is responsible for some event that went badly. Silence is also powerful when used just prior to speaking at meetings – the more confident and impressive you are, the longer that you can hold that silence. This increases your status in the perception of others [9].

Working with the McLeod Management Model

When we manage, it is more important to understand the best way we might manage, rather than be able to label someone. For that reason, I concentrate on the differences between the levels. Noticing those differences then help you to have productive conversations with the individual, so that your response is optimal for their performance. This is flexible managing at its best and will avoid under-managing and over-managing.

Level 1: Information & Support to Level 2: Mentoring

The boundary between these two ‘management’ levels is demarked by a general change in the level of independent working. At level One these are largely below professional standards, at level Two independent work has reached generally acceptable levels. There may still be issues about speed, quality or the understanding of the consequences of actions, but the base level of work is adequate and advancing. At level Two we can begin to test the person to think solutions through in the areas where they are most experienced. One way to do that is to ask mentoring-type questions.

Tom, the Financial Report for Category D purchasing is fine. I want you to look at the circulation list and tell me if you notice anyone that is there that ought not to be listed or whether anyone is not listed that ought to be – any thoughts? 

Possibly followed by:

Excellent. Now, what do we normally do in a situation like this?

If Tom does not know the system, you can intervene:

Tom, there are at least three ways that might work. The others went yesterday by internal mail right?... okay, we could mail the others with a note from me or you; we could email the report similarly so it catches up, or since all the people we missed have offices that are on site, we could get Jonathon to walk them around by hand with a note. Which do you think would be most appropriate?

The questions are only asked if an assumption can reasonably be made that the individual has some level of understanding in that context, if not, we should consider them as level One and ask what information and/or support needs they may have. The answer to that should be sufficient to enable them to complete the job. Remember, Perception, Test, Action.

Level Two: Mentoring to Level Three: Coaching Leadership

Level Two to Three is demarked by a higher level of independence and also marks the change in managing style from management to leadership.

At level Three the person is self-starting and more resourceful. Level Three people are taking new initiatives and finding, from experience, better ways of doing things. The real development that awaits them is mental aptitude. By that, I mean the development of higher reasoning, wider and more holistic understanding of the consequences of actions, broader ability in initiating and developing relationships (to improve performance) and careful and sensitive handling of communication, management and strategic issues. All of these are stimulated most excellently by facilitating their development using coaching-leader interventions to make the difference.

We assume that they have the mental resources to find motivated solutions for themselves and enough information about the detail of their specialty, the role of their product or service and their impact within the whole business. Using a combination of questions, challenges and silence, the coaching-leader aims to encourage the person to achieve their goal, gain a wider set of options for moving forward and select one that is effective (and for which the person is suited and motivated).

Comprehensive examples about the use of coaching-leader interventions in management are available in ‘Performance Coaching’ [10]. Here though are some typical interventions:

Tom, you say that that we cannot produce the order in time, but what if we could? What would we have to do in order to do that?

Tom, if I heard you right you said that Peters dislikes you because he has twice left you off the monthly meeting list. If there was another reason for that, what might that reason be?

Tom, you have suggested three different approaches. Which one is the best and why?

Tom, should we concentrate on what we know we can’t do or what we can?

Tom, imagine if you will that John has this same issue going on with him at the moment. What could you advise him to do?

Tom, what if we had just won the Annual Award, how good would we be feeling right now? What do you think we would have learned that would be useful to us in order to achieve this award again?

Each question is designed to test Tom’s present perception and move him to a more useful, performance mindset. More than that, professional coaching questions adopted by leaders develops mental agility. The expert use of tools that Tom will apply will see him through his entire career. His all-time favorite boss will have been you.

Level Zero to Level 1

The off-chart parts of the model include Level Zero. What do we do when we have people who are regularly distressed and have variable efficacy at work? Typically, we need help too! Most managers are not qualified to deal with such issues, even if they have the time to grapple with these situations. But, you still need to understand and manage those situations at work where the Level Zero is largely performing at Level One.

The differential between level Zero and level One is determined by the emotional resource of the person to do their job rather than by their competences. Competence will help people in both levels to gain self-esteem and self-confidence. However, at level Zero the individual is too distracted, too panicky and/or too preoccupied to learn quickly enough and to achieve a consistent level of quality in their work.

People working at level Zero have a lack of emotional resource. In the extreme situation, this lack of emotional resource can manifest as crying, absenteeism and self-harming. In these cases, it is worth considering having a conversation about further help and involving a professional from the HR department, possibly of the same gender as the person exhibiting those symptoms.

End Note

Being a coaching-leader requires flexibility and a commitment to taking the time to test how people are doing by having conversations. It does take an investment of time and hence fire-fighters will tend to continue to manage poorly. Investing time in coaching conversations creates more independent working in our people and makes sure that they rarely, if ever, feel over-managed or under-managed again. To have proactive, motivated people we must make that investment. As our people become more independent, effective and realistically confident, they need less of our time – our investment is worth the effort.

[1] Ken Blanchard, copyrighted product

[2] McLeod, 2004. Performance Coaching & Mentoring in Organisations, Resource, 1,1, 28-31

[3] McLeod, A (2003) ‘Performance Coaching – the Handbook for Managers, HR Professionals and Coaches’ Crown House, Bancyfelin, UK & NY

[4] All these questions also fall into other categories as well as ‘open’. The opposite type, closed questions, are ones that can be answered by the words yes or no or a numeral.

[5] In neuro-linguistic programming terms, sometimes called ‘future-pacing’

[6] A good coaching methodology will provide a logical process for the coaching contract. I recommend my own, STEPPPA which is detailed in McLeod, A. (2003) and may also be found in McLeod, A. (2004), Anchor Point, 18, 1, 15-20

[7] Sometimes called the ‘Learning Zone’ and relating to the stretch needed to get out of the ‘Comfort Zone’ and into a psychologically more demanding state, one which is more optimal for learning and development

[8] The Power of Silence, first designed and delivered with Steve Breibart and available via Angus McLeod & Associates

[9] This is an area of expertise of John Abulafia, the operatic director and trainer.

[10] McLeod, A., (2003) ‘Performance Coaching – the Handbook for Managers, HR Professionals and Coaches’ Crown House, Bancyfelin, UK & NY