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How Managers Can Coach Teams to Move From Fear to Success

How Managers Can Coach Teams to Move From Fear to Success

by Jake Herway

Gallup has discovered that the best managers are the best coaches. They pay attention to the inherent ways people think, feel and behave, and they use this understanding to simultaneously develop people and get the best business outcomes.

Effective coaching increases engagement. It can boost productivity, increase profit and reduce turnover. But coaching as a manager comes with a specific set of challenges.

Like coaching people through times of change.

Seasoned managers have seen it a hundred times. Something's changing. An announcement has been made, and managers are beginning to communicate and implement the change with their teams. But despite all efforts at clear communication, something just isn't working.

Arms are crossed. Lips are tight. Sidelong glances are thrown. These are common, fear-based responses to change. While we, as managers, tend to dread these behaviors and see them as inherent resistance, the truth is that they're absolutely normal.

We all have a fight-or-flight response hardwired in our brains -- an evolutionary adaptive mechanism that keeps us alive. In fact, the brain devotes more space and energy to fear than any other emotion. So fear-based reactions in the face of change are predictable and natural.

But they can also pose a lethal risk to performance and organizational success. The best managers help individuals and teams learn how to recognize and manage these fear-based instincts productively.

Expect, Then Accept

Managers should expect instinctual fear, retreat, and defensive behavior and know they can't take it personally. What can appear to be stubborn resistance or lack of motivation is often an unrefined, unintentional response to a very natural instinct.

The best managers establish safety and trust by allowing employees to put these feelings on the table, talk about them, and acknowledge that they are normal.

Then, as teams acknowledge these feelings, they can help others embrace them and understand that being uncomfortable is a necessary precursor to better outcomes.

For the greatest success, employees need to understand that natural discomfort is often a sign that things are moving in the right direction. To achieve that understanding, managers need to coach employees to shift from a mindset that labels things that are "different" as scary to see them as valuable instead.


Managers can use the following advice to get their teams to shift from a survivalist, fear-based instinct to a success mindset.

Make a habit of talking about ideas that are unusual, different or even weird. Practice and model behavior that is receptive to different approaches. Establish comfort when discussing divergent points of view, alternative processes and other topics that challenge the norm. "Different" can be the seed of innovation, so help people get comfortable talking about it.

Seek surprise. The known is more comfortable than the unknown. For this reason, many people spend a lot of time trying to confirm what they already know. When they do that, they stop listening. They discount thinking that's incongruent with their own, and they lose the ability to be surprised. But true learning absolutely depends on surprise. If it doesn't surprise you, you probably already knew it (or you've already discarded it because it doesn't confirm your beliefs). The best managers help their teams to recognize and embrace surprise as a key element of learning and growth.

Individualize your coaching around the issue of change. While all people have an instinctive fight-or-flight mechanism, individual responses to change will vary dramatically. Why? Because people are uniquely wired with very different patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. Simply, people have different strengths. These unique strengths shape how we perceive change and influence how we respond to it. With this in mind, managers should try to understand and address change through the specific lens of each individual.

Use your team's strengths as an example. Our strengths make us more different from each other than we tend to think. Those differences can be leveraged for success in times of transition -- a strengths orientation can accelerate the behaviors that see "weird and surprising" and think "learning and opportunity." In fact, Gallup analytics shows that when companies invest in strengths-based development, they see an average 8% to 18% increase in performance, 7% to 23% increase in engagement, and 2% to 10% higher customer metrics.

To retreat from the new and different is to retreat from performance potential. When managers acknowledge the negative feelings that change can evoke, they can help teams work through them. And it's the first step to effective coaching, the most powerful tool to position employees, managers, teams and companies to win.

Learn more about Gallup's solutions for developing managers into exceptional coaches:

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