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Coaching your supervisor

When we think of coaching we usually think of someone more experienced, like a supervisor, coaching someone less experienced, like their junior staff or students. But staff and students can also coach upwards to their supervisor as well.

First a word on coaching, managing and mentoring. Mentoring is typically showing someone a path that you have trodden yourself. So you are teaching someone something you know well how to do. Whereas, coaching is about developing the person’s skills and helping them find direction in their career. So you can coach someone without having any expertise in their subject area.

People sometimes talk about ‘managing up’. Managing up differs from coaching up. Managing up is task focused. One example of managing up would be communicating to your supervisor clear expectations about when you can complete a task, like “I’m on holidays for the next two weeks, so you won’t get the next draft until the end of November”.

Coaching up is person focused. Whether you know it or not, there is a lot that you can teach you supervisor. The beauty of coaching is that you don’t have to know the answers in advance.

Here’s some examples.

First, you can think about their role and perspective, rather than your own. Say they have been consistently late on returning feedback on drafts and you are feeling frustrated by that. Before you tell them about your frustration, ask questions to learn why they are consistently late. For instance you could ask “What’s been holding most of your attention at work recently?” Maybe they have a major grant deadline approaching, are overloaded with teaching or have challenges in their personal life.

Once you understand why they are late, and that it may not be their fault, you are in a better position to collaborate with them on solutions to getting feedback on your work.

Another example is if you have negative feedback for them. Let’s say your supervisor was very aggressive in questioning another student at the student’s seminar and you noticed the student was upset afterwards.

It might be tempting to tell the supervisor straight-up that they were being mean, or avoid the confrontation and not say anything at all. But you can sidestep the confrontation while still giving them the feedback by coaching them through to finding a better approach.

You can ask them questions like, “how do you think the student felt after presenting their seminar?” or “did you notice any changes in the student’s behaviour after their seminar?”

You could then follow up with revealing the information you have, that the student seemed very upset by the questions.

You can give positive feedback on their supervision as well. My students and staff are great at this, but I understand it’s not common. For example, I was coaching one staff member on the decision to invest effort into applying for a grant. I was asking them if having the grant was aligned with where they saw their career, and work-life balance, in the future.

The staff member followed up later to tell me how beneficial that discussion had been, and that it had helped them think about this decision in a new way. Now they are coaching me, by providing me with positive reinforcement on the approach to supervision I was trying in our earlier discussion.

One final example. When I meet with senior staff I often ask them how they feel about certain events. I’m just curious to know what they make of it. I might ask about a positive thing, like a if they enjoyed the seminar from a visiting prof. Or something that might be troubling them, like a how they feel about a change in the priorities of their major funder.

Giving people space to talk about how events have impacted their emotions is part of coaching, and senior staff often aren’t given that space.

If you are a supervisor you can encourage coaching up by creating an environment where sharing feelings and positive feedback are welcomed. Modelling coaching in your interactions with staff and students will also help them learn the skill.

Finally, coaching takes time so be patient. It’s a long-term game, but in my experience I’ve see the biggest changes in people’s approaches to work through coaching.

Just want to say a huge thanks to my coaches. Especially Chris Reilly and Mary Saunders, who teach an amazing course on Manager as Coach at Griffith University. Also huge thanks to my staff and students, many of whom excel at coaching up. Thanks to their insightful questions, I often leave our meetings rethinking how I will approach being a supervisor.

Contact: Chris Brown

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