• July 2011

Why Managers Hate Career Coaching—And How to Avoid the Struggle

By Alice Waagen
Management Training Expert
Owner, Workforce Learning

It’s no surprise that career discussions with employees are often onerous for managers, because many of these talks become contentious. The reasons why are complex, but essentially the conflict arises from misguided expectations and poor communication from both the employee and manager. In my experience, there are three reasons for the disconnect.

The Fallacies:

1. Career success means continuous vertical progression, with advancement occurring every few years.

2. Employees believe it is their manager’s job to find the next opportunity for each member of the staff.

3. Managers are responsible for advancing all members of their staff to the next level.

The Facts:

1. The belief is prevalent that time in position equals consistent, upward career movement, and is often described by the employee like this: “I have been in the same job now for two years, so I feel that I should get a promotion.”

If, however, the manager doesn’t agree that a promotion is warranted, both parties are likely to feel as if they have failed. This, of course, is a no-win scenario, and any conversation about upward movement in the company is likely to turn into an emotional tirade.

Employees need to understand that most managers base promotions on three criteria:

  • The employee clearly demonstrates mastery of the job, and that his or her skills and expertise have hit the highest level of performance for the position.
  • The organization has a need for this higher skill level, and a position is open where the employee would be better suited.
  • Money exists in the budget to fund the salary increase required for the bump up the corporate ladder.

2. The beliefs that employees aren’t responsible for their future, and that managers can and will assume that responsibility, create burdensome and unreasonable expectations for both managers and employees.

The truth is, as with anything in life, taking a passive posture toward the future diminishes motivation and drive to achieve and succeed. Unfortunately, a lack of opportunity breeds resentment and anger on the part of the employee.

3. Managers who believe that they are responsible for moving staff along harbor feelings of resentment and guilt when their efforts fail due to organizational restrictions. This combination more often than not builds mistrust and frustration in the Petri dish of business relations.

The Alternative:

I am convinced that if managers are proactive, they can make a difference. Here’s how:

1. Do your homework. Have open, regular conversations with your boss, HR, and other business leaders in your company about the organizational criteria for promotions and career moves. Ask if there are budgetary limits, and if new positions can be created for employees doing stellar work. Knowing the rules of the road before you have conversations with staff saves you from inadvertently creating false hopes.

2. Be clear. Be open. Be honest. And don’t add to the disconnects by making empty promises or saying, “I’ll check to see if we can make an exception.” That may make one discussion end on a positive note but will make future talks contentious if you need to return with a negative answer.

3. Clarify roles. Your job is to be a coach and a guide, but not the director of every employee’s future. Every individual needs to author their own career plan based on their needs to advance and grow as professionals. Your job is to validate that their plan is reasonable within the boundaries of business need and budget.

Managers should not avoid career talks with staff. They should embrace them and make them part of every performance discussion.

The Bottom Line:

Employees who have a clear road map for their future will be more focused on today’s accomplishments and results. Their success will be obvious, as will yours. And that’s the mark of a good manager.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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