A Coaching Mindset for Remote Team Leadership

Amy was glad it was Friday.

She felt exhausted, physically and mentally tired. Her eyes hurt from looking at the screen and her shoulders were right up her ears – from the accumulated tension and clicking of the mouse.

Amy was also puzzled. It hadn’t been a particularly difficult week at work, no looming deadlines, no new projects, no crisis… But she felt like she hadn’t stopped. Maybe part of it was that she’d done lots of bits and pieces: polishing the report that Luke had struggled with formatting, working out the priorities for her team members, and answering questions via Slack. The video meetings instructing Alex and Sam on how to kick off their project had extended her days, as their time zones were a few hours behind hers.

Thinking through her week, Amy realised that all she’d done was solve other people’s problems and given them suggestions on how to proceed with their work. Her team members were smart, so what was going on? Why did she keep solving other people’s problems? Well, she did enjoy troubleshooting, that was one of the reasons why she’d gone into management. And it did feel great when someone asked, “How do I…?” or “What should I…?” and you were able to give them a quick reply.

And that was the thing, in the online space, running a remote team, giving quick answers with quick solutions gave everyone a feeling of efficiency and job satisfaction. It was the best way to work in a team. Or was it?

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Day-to-Day Communication in a Remote Team 

When we work in a remote team (or a team by another name where communication regularly takes place online), most of our regular conversations tend to be asynchronous and transactional. It's therefore easy to miss out on the opportunity to initiate an interaction that will help a team member to learn on the job, to grow as a professional (even as a person!), when the expectation is that of a short, actionable reply. Being afraid of becoming a bottleneck when we know someone is waiting for an answer or solution which we can quickly and easily provide, we fire off a quick email, or do our best to give quick instructions over a ten minute call.

But it is precisely in this kind of team, where team members don’t have regular, daily, spontaneous interactions and people work to different schedules, that everyone needs to be more autonomous and not rely on the manager for help. Once upon a time, managers held mountains of information in their desktops or their filing cabinets. Now, if our ecosystem has been set up correctly, team members should have access to the information and people they need to do their job in a timely way – and under regular circumstances, to use their managers and colleagues as sounding boards and mentors, instead of solution providers.

Enabling and Empowering Instead of Solving and Fixing

Amy is not a rare case. She is committed to her work, and wants to be accessible to her team members at all times. However, constantly solving her team members’ problems is resulting in her team members being over-dependent on her – and in turn, she’s beginning to feel a little bit stressed.

Amy could help herself and her team, by adopting a coaching mindset during the interactions with her team members.

This post isn't going to introduce you to some revolutionary way of working made possible by advances in technology - the aim of these words is to remind you of the essence of leadership, which can be applied regardless of the technology you're using to communicate.

What I'm suggesting goes beyond taking a coaching role during one-to-ones (although that is also desirable): adopting a coaching mindset is about resisting the urge to fire back a quick email or message solving a team member's problem, when a better strategy would be to slow down and help them think through the problem themselves. It’s about recognising when you want to help team members in a way that makes you feel useful and needed, rather than in a way that can help them develop as they navigate through their work. It’s also about recognising the potential in other people to learn through every obstacle, gaining in confidence and capacity as they use their own knowledge and imagination to generate their own solutions. And to be humble enough to recognise that the best answer might come from the team member instead of ourselves.

Not all our interactions will be best served by a coaching approach  - some occasions do require fast problem-solving or a more directive response – for example during emergencies, or when a team member is in the early stages of their learning journey, or going through a difficult patch. But on the whole, many of our regular interactions can be turned into learning opportunities, however small. (For more on when a coaching approach is more appropriate, see Ken Blanchard’s work on Situational Leadership – although I am suggesting, that in remote teams, we probably need to consciously adopt a coaching mindset as a default position.)

Flipping the Conversation

These are some of the questions you can ask yourself when faced with a request for help or the opportunity to review a team member’s work.

  • I can totally answer this question and provide guidance in a short email -but will that create an expectation that I am willing and able to solve every problem that arises in the future? What kind of questions can I ask them to help them find the answer themselves? Or, what kind of guidance can I give them to help work through the problem in a way that makes sense to them?

  • Does this require a quick answer, or could finding the time to turn it into a conversation create more value for the team member in the future? Although there is much talk of team meetings in the online space, it seems to have become unfashionable to ask for a “quick chat”. Picking up the phone or jumping onto an online call can turn a short request for help into a conversation that will enable the team member to feel more secure in tackling similar problems when they emerge again.

  • Is this a question I often receive from this team member? In the past, you might have offered answers or suggestions that had worked for you given your context and experience, but that didn’t match that of the team member’s. Rather than giving them a quick answer with clear directions, it might be time to help them come up with an answer they can own.

It might be time to raise the fact that the obstacle keeps coming up and that it’s worth spending some time to address it. Ask whether a real-time conversation where they can think out loud, or asynchronous communication that can help them think through your questions on your own might be best. Then offer a set of questions to guide them step by step to find a solution (and which can help them develop the habit of thinking through the problem themselves.) For example: What is the obstacle you’re facing? What are your different options? What stands in the way? Who else has already solved this problem? What’s the next step you can take?

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Speed is the Enemy

Key to all this is noticing when our interactions with team members are unfocused. Are you scanning through their written messages while your mind is on something else? Are you distracted by something going on in front of you when having an audio conversation with them? Were you unable to sit comfortably in front of the camera during your video conversation?

Asking someone to turn the attention to themselves, to how they see a situation, to how they would solve a problem, is asking them to be vulnerable – and in order to be vulnerable, they need to feel safe. Knowing that their message was read and replied to in a rush, or that the person they’re having a conversation with is not totally focused on them, doesn’t help anyone feel safe.

It’s Never that Easy

Asking questions to help someone find an answer instead of offering a solution yourself is not easy. And it’s often tempting to disguise a suggestion in the form of a question. “Have you thought of…” is not a question, but a suggestion. (It can be useful, especially if the team member needs help to break through, but it’s not a coaching question.)

In a similar way, leading questions (those designed to get the other person to come up with an answer you’ve already thought of or already know) are great for directing attention and helping others to figure out an answer you’ve already come up with. They might have a place in certain kinds of learning situations, but they’re not coaching questions.

Guiding someone to find the solution to a problem will take longer, more time and might sometimes even lead to mistakes being made along the way… But a coaching mindset also involves knowing your team members well enough to know when they need careful guidance and when they just need a nudge to fly off on their own.

On top of all this, the online space has given us a range of communication methods. Being comfortable with all of them and recognising that everyone has a preference is also key to increasing the effectiveness of adopting a coaching approach. When a request for help needs to be turned into a conversation, would an audio call be best? Or is your team member more comfortable on video? Or is an asynchronous approach best, to allow them to think through your questions in their own time? The best way of finding this out, is by asking them.

So, what does this mean for you?

As a manager or leader of a remote team, one of your responsibilities is to find opportunities for your team members to develop in a way that contributes to the success of your team. Learning on the job is one of the most effective ways of developing as professionals.

The introduction of coaching skills in management development has been popular for a long while, but it’s usually focused on how to have conversations about progress and career development, while being together in the same room. With technology as a mediator of our day to day interactions, in remote teams we can run the risk of adopting a coaching mindset only during our one-ones – when every interaction with our team members presents and opportunity to develop others, and ourselves.

 To learn more about adopting a coaching mindset, contact us about our workshops and coaching for manager services or check out some of our other content:

In episode 197 of the 21st Century Work Life podcast, Pilar talks about how in remote leadership there is less room for the “leader as hero”.

For more on creating the conditions for team members to feel safe in an online meeting, listen to this episode of Management Café on psychological safety, or listen to the sample chapter on Psychological Safety in Online Meetings in our audiobook Thinking Remote: Inspiration for leaders of distributed teams.

And if you enjoyed this post, for more inspiration on leading remote teams, and a set of questions to help you reflect on the different chapters, check out our book Thinking Remote, in ebook, paperback and audio formats.