What is a Manager’s Role in Developing Their Employees?

by | May 12, 2021 | Leadership

People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. While oftentimes one’s reason for leaving an organization is complex and multifaceted, there is truth here. A manager’s behavior and the extent to which they motivate, support, and develop their employees is the number one factor in employee satisfaction.

Managers Motivate

A good manager does more than assign tasks to their direct reports (and avoid micromanaging those tasks). Managers are essential in attracting candidates, driving performance, keeping engagement and retention levels high, and supporting their team’s development, consequently allowing the organization to be its best. Ineffective management leads to a lack of trust and collaboration on the team, resulting in high turnover and reduced morale. There is frustration in their employees as they lose interest in their work. Moreover, beyond the financial costs of turnover, those managers have missed an opportunity to develop their people into a high performing team. They’ve lost opportunities in the form of employee contribution.

An effective manager sees not only what their employees can do now, but looks to their potential and sees what they might be able to do in the future. Managers are key in employee development and skills training. An employee can only develop as far as their manager believes them to be capable.
Beliefs are what we think and believe, about ourselves, the world, our worth, our capacity, our heart and soul, other people, relationships, culture… everything in our lives. Beliefs are the glue that hold people together and keep us at our current level of thinking. These beliefs can be both positive and negative.

A leader will only get as much out of his or her people as he or she believes is possible. If a manager believes their employees are capable of greater responsibility and provides them the support and opportunity they need to prove this, their employees will rise to the challenge. Alternatively, a manager setting the belief bar low for their team members will keep their success low; people will only rise to the level of their manager’s set expectations. This is referred to as the Pygmalion effect.

Under an ineffective manager, an employee’s potential may be thwarted. Under an effective manager who believes in their people, growth and development can expand exponentially and employees can thrive.

The Peter Principle

In addition to an employees’ success being directly thwarted without the support of their manager to develop, lack of learning and development support may result in poor company practices, like the Peter Principle. Coined by Laurence Peter (1969), the Peter Principle pitfall occurs when employees receive promotions based on proficiency in their current role, moving upwards in the organizational hierarchy into new roles for which they are incompetent.

Under good management, this doesn’t occur. An effective manager helps their employees develop on the job and prepares them for roles of greater responsibility. However, all too often managers fail to grow their teams, and when a culture of deemphasized development is pervasive across an organization, it is only a matter of time before the organization has leadership incapable of motivating and growing their teams because they simply don’t know how.

No one wants to work for a boss who doesn’t take interest in them as a person or their career growth and development. We have a basic human desire to feel seen. Today, more than ever, our workforce is filled with a generation of individuals who strive for constant growth and want their efforts to be acknowledged.

In an era of technology where information is always at our fingertips, growth and development within an organization isn’t seen as a perk, it’s viewed as an expectation. When an organization doesn’t provide opportunities for development, it’s only a matter of time before their employees move on to an organization that will. It’s the role of the manager to provide these opportunities and help retain employees.

How to avoid the Peter Principle? Well, that’s a simple answer: develop your teams. Of course, this is easier said than done. Formal training may cost money the organization doesn’t have or take resources such as time from calendars that are already filled to the brim. Thankfully, the research shows that formal trainings aren’t the gold standard. In fact, true employee development may take little to no resources at all. The answer lies in the 70-20-10 model.

Developing People on The Job

Focusing on growth and development isn’t solely in the interest of the individual employee. When employees are able to work towards personal goals while conducting role responsibilities, they are not only serving the organizational needs but become more satisfied with their jobs and more productive. Their sense of purpose is strengthened by accomplishing their own goals while also taking strides towards achieving the organizational vision. Using on-the-job training can help achieve this balance of completing role assignments while enhancing employee development.

Research beginning in the 1980s shows that the greatest learning, 70%, takes place on the job. Experiential learning occurs through the completion of tasks, projects, and exposure to new on-the-job experiences. When an employee actively participates in an assignment that requires new skills or learnings, they are more likely to learn and retain the new information through this participation than if they were to take a formal training. You can read about riding a bike, but only once you’re in the seat and begin to peddle do you really understand. The same is true for workplace learning.

An additional 20% of development opportunity occurs near the job, through peer interactions. Social learning occurs through collaboration, interacting with others and observing others’ work. Lastly, 10% of learning does require formal training for things such as computer programs or other technical functions.

Overall, roughly 90% of learning occurs through one’s work and working with one’s team. With this in mind, it’s no surprise truly successful managers build development directly into the team’s work. Focusing on developing their team members doesn’t require vast amounts of formal trainings, but it will require some structure.

On the Job Learning via Coaching

One caveat to learning on the job is that without structured feedback, the employee may fail. Learning by trial and error is only successful to the extent that there are feedback mechanisms in place to ensure any mistakes are corrected before the work gets too far down the road. If an employee is struggling with new information and doesn’t feel supported, they may quickly get discouraged and either give-up or burn out.
While Executive Coaching is often provided to senior leaders, employees can receive similar benefits from having a manager who serves as a coach. Managers who coach their employees along their journey are more successful in keeping projects on track than those who don’t. While aiding employees’ development they establish more effective teams.

Coaching v. Mentoring

A mentor is an expert that you can call and meet with to seek advice. The framework of a mentoring relationship may vary from a structured program with set regularity, to a relationship with no set structure beyond calling on them if you need help. Mentors typically have more experience and can provide advice. They serve as a strategist for building your working relationships, help you network to gain connections in your industry, and have the industry knowledge to help you work through roadblocks and attain career goals.

Alternatively, a coach is someone who has a deep investment in your development in a specific area, works with you to set goals, defines a vision for your career, provides support and feedback, helps to hold you accountable, and calls you out if you are making excuses or slipping into old behavior patterns. While mentors may be focused specifically on career attainment, a coach may focus more on performance behaviors and the deeper, underlying cognitive behaviors that are influencing one in the workplace (e.g., cognitive biases impinging on one’s ability to succeed). While your mentor may also serve as your coach, a coach is not necessarily a mentor.

A manager as a coach can be a powerful driving force in their employees’ development. Focusing on specific areas of an individual’s work, they can help that employee develop their potential, strengthen an area of expertise, and thrive while also developing them to be a great asset to the organization.

Coaching Methods

There are many coaching methods that are considered acceptable for the workplace. Three popular methods include humanist coaching, cognitive coaching, and goal-oriented coaching.

  • Humanist coaching
    Humanist coaching emphasizes reaching self-actualization and achieving one’s full potential. The success of this form of coaching is believed to stem from a deep connection between coach and employee, building a foundation of trust where the employee feels comfortable discussing their shortcomings and turning to the coach for support. This form of coaching helps bring self-awareness to the employee around areas of opportunity. Once these growth areas are identified, the coach and employee can begin to work on implementing tools and strategies to develop in these areas.
  • Cognitive coaching
    Focusing on mindset and beliefs, cognitive coaching helps to illuminate maladaptive thought patterns that may be hindering one’s work and help to reframe those thought patterns or beliefs into action oriented, productive thoughts. This form of coaching is especially helpful when an individual has the skills and abilities but their own imposter syndrome of lack of confidence is getting in their way.
  • Goal-oriented coaching
    As its name implies, goal-oriented coaching centers around a specific goal. This form of coaching is action oriented, helping an employee make strides towards achievement of their goal.

While each of these methods has its merits, any one of them used as a standalone method will achieve only a portion of the positive outcomes that can be made through coaching. Instead, combining all three into a more holistic coaching approach will bring about the best results. Research indicates nine leadership coaching skills that promote a positive coaching experience, and these nine skills cut across the three coaching methods discussed. Therefore, to be the most successful coach, it is important to remain flexible in your coaching method.

9 Leadership Coaching Skills

  • Listening
  • Questioning
  • Giving Feedback
  • Goal-setting
  • Showing empathy
  • Guide towards the solution, don’t give the solution
  • Recognize strengths
  • Provide structure
  • Encourage solutions-focused approach


Listening and hearing are important in the coaching process in order to validate one’s emotions and help determine next steps. Leaders can show they are listening by asking more questions in meetings, allowing their team to share ideas before sharing their own, holding regular check-ins, and asking for employee feedback.

There are 5 Levels of Listening:

  1. “I” – I am thinking about me, not listening to you
  2. Judging – I am judging you while I listen
  3. Distracted – I am sort of listening to you, but I am thinking of something else
  4. Concentrated – I am really trying to process what you are saying
  5. Feeling – I am feeling what you are saying, I am empathizing with you

We want to strive to always be at levels four and five when coaching our employees. To help us listen intently, we can focus on our active listening skills.

Active Listening Skills:

  • Look at the other person – When you make eye contact, you build connection and show the other person you are paying full attention. They are your current focus.
  • Ask questions and clarify – Asking follow up questions and clarifying what has been said shows the other person you are truly taking in their words and reflecting on their point of view.
  • Eliminate distractions – to make it easier to give your full attention, hold coaching conversations in a place where there will be little to no distractions. Turn off your computer and silence your phone.
  • Summarize – by summarizing what you’ve heard, you are showing the other person you took their words to heart.
  • Watch your body language – oftentimes, we can say a lot without saying anything at all. Be mindful of your body language and what your body may be signaling to your employee. Try to keep a neutral expression and posture, don’t fidget, and keep your eye contact on them.


Asking open-ended questions will help to uncover deeper meaning. Often, a behavior presented at work is the symptom of something bigger – an old belief impacting performance, a source of stress, a workplace challenge. If you’re only focused on the observable behavior, the situation may not improve. For example, if an individual is struggling to present their ideas to a group, it may be assumed that they need to work on communication skills. However, if the real cause is an underlying belief that they aren’t capable of presenting well in front of an audience, working on communication skills won’t help them. You need to tackle the belief and help them realize they are capable of giving effective presentations. Only by asking questions and learning more about your employees can you help them grow and develop.

Giving Feedback

Feedback is one of the main dimensions related to employee motivation and performance. Moreover, research shows that successful leaders seek out and get more feedback than their less successful counterparts. This feedback seeking behavior is also related to an increase in accomplishment of on the job challenges.

Feedback is intended to help us grow. We must maintain a growth mindset when asking for and receiving feedback. In other words, we must believe that we are capable of taking feedback and acting upon it. Feedback can challenge our beliefs about ourselves and help us expand our thinking and abilities when we keep an open mind and show sincere thanks to others for taking the time to invest in us. In coaching, providing feedback and helping your employee to accept feedback is a critical component in their developmental growth.


Goal setting makes it more likely that you will achieve success. Research shows that the more specific and salient we envision our future selves, the more likely we are to achieve that reality. Decades of research into goal setting has posited the SMART formula to aid people in achieving their goals. According to SMART, goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. When it comes to developing employees through coaching, creating SMART goals that tie into their current role, desired future role, and personal development areas will help to further the progression of an employee’s development.


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and respond to their feelings. Leaders who consider others in their decisions and interactions show a high degree of empathy and tend to be trusted by their employees. When a leader considers others, they are inherently showing compassion. They have a heart for others and treat them as they would want to be treated in similar situations. When coaching employees, it is important to display a sense of empathy, showing that you truly care about their growth and development.

Guide, don’t tell

When you tell someone the solution to a problem, you take away a learning opportunity. Instead, an effective coach will lead someone towards a solution. Asking questions and having an employee reflect on a situation can help them determine their own next steps. As a manager/coach, it is important to guide and support your employees to make sure the chosen path will be productive, while allowing the employee to feel empowered and confident in the decision they came to themselves, with your support.

Recognize Strengths

There is often a misconception that to help one develop, we should focus on areas of weakness. In reality, an individual can grow exponentially more when we focus on their strengths. When people are focused on their weaknesses, their self-confidence plummets. This results in a lack of engagement, lower productivity, and even health issues over the long run. Alternatively, when we focus on strengths, we increase peoples’ sense of purpose and improve their work engagement and productivity. Strengths are a combination of natural talent and time spent developing the skill or knowledge base. When you start with this natural talent, you can grow farther than you could in an area of weakness because your baseline is set higher. By recognizing others’ strengths, you can help them see where they could go from good to great and develop into their greatest potential.

Provide Structure

When you provide structure for a coaching session, the individual knows what to expect. It provides a purpose for the session, prompting the discussion to be action focused as opposed to wandering chit chat. In other words, structure helps you stay on track.

Create a structure for your coaching sessions that works for you and your employee. Send a reminder prior to the session with the agenda so that everyone comes prepared. An example structure may look something like this:

  • Establish a Goal
  • Examine the Current Reality
  • Explore the Options or Obstacles
  • Determine a Way Forward (next steps)
  • Solutions-Focused – Start with the end in mind. Using the coaching structure, ensure that you and your employee are clear on the goals of coaching and where they want their development to take them. Continue to check-in on these throughout the coaching relationships to make sure you are on a path towards success.

The LEAD Method

In the coaching process, the manager plays a role, and the employee plays a role. Regardless of a manager’s preferred coaching style (humanist, cognitive, goal-oriented) there are practices they can follow to promote positive outcomes. One such practice is the LEAD model, attributed to Coach Amrita Madiah. LEAD helps us understand what both the manager and the employee should be thinking and doing in a coaching relationship to generate positive results.


Manager / Coach Employee/ Coachee


  • Focus on words
  • Identify values, beliefs
  • Create a trusting environment
  • Ask questions to articulate the issue


  • Talk through the problem
  • Listen to yourself
  • Say it out loud
  • Set your intentions


  • Ask questions, provide insight and thoughts
  • Encourage exploration and evaluation


    • Brainstorm and discuss
    • Challenge your comfort zone
    • Evaluate options


  • Use assessment tools
  • Reframe
  • Reinforce
  • Support, solicit, assess commitment


  • Acknowledge insights
  • Accept reality
  • Assess decisions and consequences
  • Make a commitment


  • Co-create the relationship
  • Communicate effectively
  • Facilitate learning results
  • Forge a meaningful relationship


  • Practice what was learned
  • Live up to expectations
  • Learn from experience
  • Do what you committed to do


Feedback is one of the most powerful coaching tools. Understanding and teaching the roles in coaching for both the leader and employee is a way to set up the coaching relationship effectively. It clearly defines expectations for both individuals and provides understanding on how each party will LEAD the coaching relationship.

Vulnerability is also a key component to connecting with team members and helping them develop. Sharing mistakes you’ve made shows your employees that mistakes happen and fosters an environment where it is safe for them to share their mistakes and struggles with the team. Doing so will allow for greater support, and will also ensure that other individuals don’t make the same error. Vulnerability is the first step in analyzing and improving performance, and a critical component in the manager-employee coaching relationship. Sharing imperfections creates a culture of honesty, resilience, and innovation.

How Coaching Benefits the Organization

When managers serve as coaches to help up-level their employees, they create a stronger workforce for the organization. Gone is the concern of falling into the Peter Principle pitfall, and gone is the need to always hire outside talent.
As employees are developed on their teams, succession planning is inherently being built – employees are learning the necessary skills and abilities for moving up within the organization. Not only does this promote a stronger workforce, but when individuals see the opportunities for advancement and that the organization is committed to helping them improve and grow in their career, loyalty and commitment to the organization increase, which are both directly tied to job satisfaction and performance.

The Future of Coaching

When managers provide feedback to employees without coaching them on how to improve, the feedback may feel critical and unactionable. However, when the manager serves as a coach to their employees, feedback becomes the mechanism for improvement.

As the world of work continues to move forward, managers coaching employees will become not only the norm, but also expected. A manager who does not equip their team to succeed will quickly be flagged. Successful manager-coaches will master the art of providing feedback and support and create a productive team. We will also see an increase in the following:

  • Frequent feedback: gone are the days of a once-a-year performance review. A successful manager will provide constant, regular feedback in both coaching sessions and “coaching moments,” – quick conversations on the job giving real-time feedback on what’s going well and what can be improved.
  • Feedback culture: an effective manager won’t be the only team member providing feedback. By example, they will set the expectation for the team that feedback is valued and encouraged. Team members should be encouraged to provide feedback to each other and their manager.
  • SMART goals and Stretch goals: as managers coach their employees, they will set realistic goals that relate to the employee’s current role and stretch goals that will create challenges and learning opportunities. These stretch goals, in conjunction with manager support, are the on-the-job experiences that will lead to employee development.

The higher you move in leadership, the more important it becomes to truly listen. Listen to your peers, listen to your employees, and don’t lose sight of the vision you’re striving towards. Chances are, you cannot get there alone, and by coaching your employees and helping them develop, you build a stronger organization capable of reaching its highest potential.

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