The Management-Coach clash

When an agile coach or Scrum Master is brought into a traditional line organization, there is a high risk of misunderstanding and clashing, oftentimes leading to frustration. Why is that so? Let us explore the traditional expectations towards different roles.


Upton Sinclair said it all with his famous quote:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
As I had these discussions multiple times in the past, here is a short diagram to illustrate what causes the clash. We will explore below:



Asserting authority

Managers get paid to be in control of their domain. When things aren't under control, they are expected to bring them under control. A good manager is expected to be able to state at any time that everything happens according to their provision, and nothing happens that wasn't agreed beforehand.

A consultants' authority is granted and limited by their hiring manager, and the consultant is expected to exercise their authority to drive their specific agenda in service of their manager.

A coach doesn't assert authority over others, and won't drive a predetermined agenda. Instead, a coach helps people realize their own potential and freely choose the course of action they consider best - although clearly within the scope.

And that's where coaches and managers clash:
Managers might think that coaches will exercise authority over the team and thus be sorely disappointed when they see that the coach isn't in control of the team's work, and the coach will be sorely disappointed when management reveals that they think the coach is doing a crummy job for not taking control.


Solution focus

Managers are expected to have a solution, and do whatever it takes to get one. The proverbial statement, "Bring me solutions, not problems" is descriptive here. When higher ranking people within the organization ask a manager about something within their domain, the only appropriate answer is either "This is our solution" or "We are working on a solution."

For consultants, the only appropriate answer is "This is the solution", or maybe "I need x days and then I will give you the solution"

Coaching is an entirely different book: "The solution is within you. I will help you find it." - maybe the coach does have a clear understanding of the solution, maybe not. This isn't even relevant. Important is that the coach guides others in finding their solution.

And that's where coaches and managers clash:
Managers might think that coaches are problem solvers. With this expectation, either the coach should take proactive steps to install a solution before the problem occurs or immediately resolve any issue once it occurs.
Looking at the flip side of the coin, the coach may argue that they can't work with managers who always look to the coach for the solution and aren't willing to spend time and reflect on the situation.


Getting people to think

In traditional management, managers are considered intellectual, "thinkers". Their job is to think, so that others can do. (Let's ignore for argument's sake that most managers' calendar is so cluttered with appointments that they have zero time left to think.) Statements like "This is above my paygrade" are epitomes for a corporate culture where thinking is considered the responsibility of management.

A consultant has a higher self-interest in getting some people to think - at a minimum, the hiring manager should put enough consideration into the consultant's proposal to understand how their solution will affect the organization, preferably in a beneficial way.

Coaches take another stance: Ideally, they encourage others to think by asking probing, critical questions and being skeptical about other people's solution - in order to help people get beyond preconceived notions and think in wider horizons. The more thinking a coach does for the organization, the less sustainable the solution will be once the coach leaves.


And that's where coaches and managers clash:
Managers might expect the coach to use their free time to think of better ways of doing things and then come back with a clear list of improvement suggestions that just needs to be ticked off.

A coach might not do that, which neither means the coach is lazy nor that the coach isn't smart enough to do that: The coach will have a number of items in mind that need to be worked on, and help the organization get to these points one by one, when they are ready. Maybe the only thing management sees is that coaches asks a few key questions so that people will think about what's really going on and which systemic changes will improve the situation.


Defusing the conflict

Misalignment of expectations is the main cause of frustration between coaches and management. Early and frequent communication helps. Coaches need to understand how managers tick, what they get paid for and what they expect. Likewise, managers should be cautious about hiring coaches before they understand how a coach works.

For a manager, it's okay to get a consultant rather than a coach, and indeed that may be better than hiring a professional coach and expecting them to work as a consultant. It's also okay to tell the coach to tone down on the coaching and dig more into consulting.

For a coach, it's okay to start a serious discussion whether coaching or consulting is more congruent with management expectations, and propose switching into a consulting mode as fit. It's also okay to tip your hat and take your leave when consulting isn't what you expect to be doing.

It's not okay to get angry and blame one another just because we don't understand each other.


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