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The Power of Situational Coaching

Matt Driver
February 1, 2021

Our very own Matt Driver looks at four behavioural styles and when to use them to achieve the best results from your team.

Has this ever happened to you?

You explain to somebody how to do something, they appear to have understood, they go away and three weeks later they come back - and they haven't done it. So you explain again, perhaps in more detail, or perhaps repeating yourself. You ask 'Have You understood?' They say 'Yes,' and they go away again…and three weeks later they come back…and they still haven't done it.  

This is a very common managerial scenario: I tell them what to do, I try to tell them nicely, they tell me they've understood, but nothing changes.

This was the case with a Chief Executive I worked with. He was a very charming, gentlemanly sort of person but he did everyone's jobs for them. Nobody would make a single decision without his agreement. His managerial style could best be summed up as 'pleasantly autocratic'. Then one day he went on some kind of training course. He picked up the idea that you had to stop telling people what to do and allow them to get on with it. So from Friday to Monday he completely changed his style and told nobody anything. This caused consternation among his colleagues: and he complained to me a little while later that his people were still not taking responsibility. 'I believe there may be something missing here,' I responded.

Like many senior managers, this Chief Executive had first of all fallen into the trap of thinking that telling people in a nice way was somehow democratic. And then he fell into a second trap of confusing delegation with abdication. Learning a coaching approach was probably what he needed.

In another example I overheard a man on the train complaining about a member of his team and explaining to his boss that he had 'tried to coach him round to seeing things differently'. I decided not to intervene, but it left me thinking about how much lip service is paid to coaching in management circles but how often approaches like coaching are misunderstood and abused.

In this instance we see that coaching someone round to your own point of view is not coaching. It is most likely an unskilled manager avoiding straight talking when that is in fact what is needed. While coaching is a hugely important skill set, it is not right for every managerial situation.  

So what can we do?

I help managers and professionals in many sectors to learn coaching skills. Quite often, they already know the theory of coaching - but they don't put it into practice or they use it wrongly. So I have worked with them to try to understand how coaching fits into the behavioural array that a good manager needs to possess. In this endeavour, I have repeatedly been drawn back to the Situational Leadership model developed by Hersey and Blanchard (1988). In my book, Coaching Positively (2011), I outline a coaching-focused version of this model which I have called 'Situational Coaching'.

The model is outlined below:

Situational Coaching model

This model suggests that any 1-2-1 intervention by a manager or another professional (such as a doctor, an accountant or an HR specialist) comprises two dimensions of behaviour:

  1. 'push' behaviour which is the skill of telling or asking in an appropriate manner. In this case the agenda is primarily with the manager or professional.
  2. 'pull' behaviour which is the skill of drawing out from the other person, for example by asking skilful questions about their agenda, listening at depth and offering encouragement.  

Both these sets of behaviour are valid with different people at different times. A high level of push is very appropriate where the other person does not know the facts or lacks a skill which they need to learn. Pull behaviour is appropriate where the other person owns the agenda, knows broadly what to do but may not know how to do it or may lack confidence.

The reason why my Chief Executive was having no success was because he was only using the bottom two boxes shown above: he just moved between 'directing' and 'hands off'. These are relatively easy to do: it's not that hard to tell someone what to do, and it's very easy to leave them alone. But to engage in the high 'pull' behaviours of coaching and mentoring, you need real skill. And both of these styles require the core coaching skills of building rapport, listening deeply, summarising, asking the right kinds of questions and helping people to set usable goals. You can't learn these from a book or from a half-day briefing: you have to practice.  

To sum up, let's have a look at these four behavioural styles:


A directive approach is important where a person needs to have information or know-how. It may involve teaching, telling or asking a person to do something or offering them feedback. Directing comes from the 'director's' agenda.  

It may be appropriate for:

  • Identifying a performance gap
  • Offering a diagnosis
  • Working with a trainee
  • Setting a strategic direction


Mentoring is useful when the agenda is shared or co-constructed. This is very often the case in a conversation between a senior professional and a more junior or less experienced colleague.  It involves a balance of push and pull.

It will typically mean that the professional first solicits ideas, needs or views from the other person and then provide ideas or information which are needed. Note that it is very easy for the mentor to fall away into a purely directive style.  

Mentoring can be appropriate for:

  • Performance management
  • Helping people set goals or priorities
  • Helping people learn tools and techniques
  • General careers discussions
  • Induction


The focus here is entirely on the other person's agenda and pull behaviours are used to enable the person to think more clearly for themselves about what they need and what they can do.  This is an important style for building empowerment and ownership on the part of the other person and may a useful next step after mentoring.

It is appropriate for:

  • Helping people to establish clear personal goals
  • Self-appraisal approaches
  • Supporting a person through key decisions
  • Working on relationship challenges
  • Supporting a person in a new job


The hands-off approach means that neither push nor pull are used significantly. They are always there or available, but the person is allowed to do things for themselves, accessing support when they need it. This approach requires a willingness to step back and disengage, although some monitoring or follow-up may need to be available.

This style is appropriate for:

  • Managing experienced and motivated colleagues
  • Giving professional support to knowledgeable and motivated clients or patients
  • Supporting people following through on lifestyle changes
  • Providing ongoing support after a more hands-on approach

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To find out more about how we can help you improve your coaching skills call us on +44 (0)20 7928 4841 or email us at info@managementfutures.co.uk

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