A common question that surfaces during my coachability workshops is inquiring about how to coach the boss. While I generally redirect the conversation back to the individual and encourage them to first serve as a role model of coachability, a recent one-on-one conversation led me to put a bit of a diagnostic together on how to think through an approach to coaching the boss.

First, the situation: consider the boss’ behavior impact and receptivity

I find it helpful to use the scale on behavioral impact (with credit to Dr Dave Dotlich), which rates the impact of the boss’ behaviour along a scale, ranging from “annoying behavior” and “ingrained personality trait” to the more serious “value conflict” and “unethical”. The scale of receptivity is anchored by the quality of your relationship with your manager and their past track record in being open to feedback and responding positively.

Second, the approach options:

  • “Avoid / flee” for high-impact boss behavior (especially unethical) with low-quality relationship and receptivity.  
  • “Direct conversation” can be useful with lower impact issues coupled with good relationships and receptivity.
  • “Create a workaround / take it as a learning opportunity” is a self-focused strategy if the impact is mild yet the receptivity is low.
  • “Let it go” is closely related; if the impact is on the annoying side, it could be best to accept that no boss is perfect.

Could you be a truth-teller?

If your boss’ scale of receptivity meets the criteria for a direct conversation, you could be just the person they have been looking for! As one of my leadership conferences was wrapping up for the day, I approached one of the participants standing alone in the corner. Staring off in the distance, Jo was clearly pondering something from the day’s events. “I guess I really don’t have a truth-teller in the office and I’m wondering how to get one now?” was the response to my greeting.

The topic had come up earlier in one of the leadership coachability workshops. The strategy of cultivating a trusted advisor or truth-teller was offered as a way of offsetting the risk of leaders not being in touch with their impact on others. Research points to leaders receiving less and less helpful input on their personal effectiveness as they advance in the organization. Having someone who can take leaders out to coffee and periodically tell them what’s really going on is a true gift to help them avoid blind spots and stay grounded. 

A coachable leader not only directly seeks feedback, but also benefits from checking in with a trusted advisor who serves as a coaching truth-teller. 

You can learn more about tactics and habits for better coachability in my new book, Coachability: The Leadership Superpower. Click here to learn more about the book and where to get it.