When to coach and when to tell

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Abraham Maslow

Coaching is a powerful management tool and it is important to know when it is appropriate to use it.

There is a lot of evidence that shows we do not remember a great deal of what we are told, and also that we react in a negative fashion when we feel we have little or no control over how we get to where the team leader or organisation wants. You are more likely to commit to your own ideas than those imposed on you – people often don’t like being told what to do. Coaching builds on this premise.

When to coach

Used well, (non-directive) coaching is a highly effective way of

  • Maximising personal motivation
  • Encouraging learning from an experience
  • Developing an individual’s performance or a new skill
  • Developing teams and individuals who work remotely from you
  • Developing commitment to action rather than compliance
  • Developing responsibility and accountability around actions and results
  • Helping an individual overcome a specific performance-related issue or meet a specific goal
  • Coaching when you don’t have the expert knowledge to be able to tell someone what to do.

When to tell (directive coaching)

There are, of course, still some occasions when telling is what is needed:

  • With a new starter who simply does not have the knowledge
  • To explain processes and procedures
  • To meet a deadline that precludes coaching
  • If compliance is needed.

Coaching or telling?

Another way to help decide if coaching, as opposed to telling, is appropriate is to diagnose the presenting issue, which will often be in one of the following four categories.


If the issue comes about from a lack of specific knowledge then it is unlikely that coaching is going to help. If knowledge is the issue, it is often best to

  • Direct people to where they can find the knowledge or information
  • Send them on a training programme so they can get the knowledge
  • Tell them what they need to know.


If the person has the relevant knowledge, but has not yet translated it into a skill or behaviour, or if they need to improve or develop the skill or behaviour, coaching is often a good place to start. Coaching is a great way to bring about performance improvements through developing and applying skills.


Attitude issues can vary from someone who simply doesn’t appreciate that the way they are looking at the task is having a negative impact on their performance through to proactive sabotage. Coaching can often work really well with the former by helping to raise awareness, but may not be appropriate with the latter. Attitude can encompass beliefs – does the individual believe that they cannot do a certain task? Beliefs are powerful things that can support or dramatically limit performance and coaching is a useful tool to help challenge those that limit performance.


In some instances it may be that the requirements of the job or performance are beyond the aptitude of the individual. Before arriving at this conclusion, you need to be sure you have eliminated knowledge, skills and attitude as possible issues. Coaching is not likely to help in situations where the issue really is one of aptitude. However, many managers fall into the trap of thinking the issue is aptitude when, in fact, it is around knowledge, skills or attitude.

Has coaching been used appropriately?

What are the signs that tell you that coaching has been used appropriately and to good effect? As with a lot of things, it’s not always a cut-and-dried situation. The main thing is to spend time fully understanding what it is that you are trying to address, change or develop before you decide on the appropriate course of action. You may not always make the right diagnosis, but spending time on diagnosis dramatically improves your chances of success.

When coaching is used appropriately, you might see some or all of the following results.

  • Individuals taking more responsibility and accountability for actions
  • ‘Aim’ rather than ‘blame’ conversations
  • Increased results through better performance
  • Your people coming to you with ideas and suggested courses of action rather than questions such as ‘What do I do?’
  • Increased motivation
  • The development of a learning culture
  • More feedback

While some coaching can bring about immediate results, it is important to understand that coaching is something that generally brings change over time. It is about you developing coaching habits that help develop others. It might be easier in the short term to simply tell someone what to do, but that won’t help them to learn and to develop their skills.