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How to Coach for Improved Performance

“How to Coach for Improved Performance”

Make the most of your most valuable resource — people. This innovative approach to solving performance problems presents a coaching model and creative coaching techniques for managers to use in developing a supportive environment. It shows how to address individual differences, including language, culture, age, and value systems.


The goal of this Business Builder is to help managers, supervisors, or co-workers coach employees to overcome barriers or hurdles and improve performance. This innovative approach to solving performance problems presents a coaching model and creative coaching techniques for managers to use in creating a supportive environment and addressing individual differences, including language, culture, age, and value systems.


Coaching is one of the most critical skills to be mastered by today’s entrepreneur. Why is coaching so important? Today’s environment has created more pressure to do more with less. The key to reducing pressure is to make the most of your most valuable resource — people.

  • High performing employees will help you reduce the anxiety and stress of increasing and multiple responsibilities.
  • Coaching is the most effective way of developing your employees.
  • Improved employee performance leads to increased productivity and bottom line results.
  • Employees experience increased self-esteem and job satisfaction.

Successful coaches in business as in sports are great influencers. They know how to bring out the best in others. They also know that it is an on-going process and a primary responsibility.

Keep in mind that coaching takes time. It involves real commitment and a desire to participate actively in the employee’s development. Throughout the coaching process, it is important to keep in mind that the main objective is to improve performance. Managers need to guard against jumping to early conclusions when they identify a performance problem. As with any problem-solving process, the first and often the most difficult step is to identify clearly what the problem is.


To understand the coaching process, we will look at the following areas:

  • Definition of Coaching
  • Qualities, Characteristics, and Skills of Effective Coaches
  • Coaching Behaviors
  • The Coaching Process
  • Feedback
  • Rewards
  • Measuring Success

Defining Coaching


  • …is an on-going process designed to help the employee gain greater competence and overcome barriers to improving performance.
  • …differs from training, which is a structured process to provide employees with the knowledge and skills to perform job tasks.
  • …is appropriate when the person has the ability and knowledge but performance has dropped, and he or she has not met expectations.
  • …involves a change in behavior.

The idea is to move the employee from where he or she is to where you want him or her to be. Coaching is not the same as counseling. Counseling is problem solving directed at personal issues that are affecting, or have the potential to affect, performance. Very often counseling involves personal problems such as marital and family problems, substance abuse, emotional and psychological barriers. The manager should not try to counsel but should serve as a resource person, directing the employee to a skilled practitioner for further professional help.

Identifying Qualities, Characteristics, and Skills of Effective Coaches

Studies show that effective coaches share certain personal qualities and characteristics, such as the following:

  • Patience
  • Enthusiasm
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Friendliness
  • Genuine concern for others
  • Self-confidence
  • Fairness
  • Consistency
  • Flexibility
  • Resourcefulness

To be successful, coaches need to develop the following skills and abilities:

  • Communicating
  • Listening
  • Questioning
  • Setting goals and objectives
  • Establishing appropriate priorities
  • Analyzing
  • Relating to people at all levels
  • Planning and organizing

Modeling Coaching Behavior

In addition to qualities, characteristics and skills, as an effective coach you need to demonstrate certain behaviors. Using the acronym COACH, we will review the following behaviors. Try to relate each one to yourself and your situation.

  • Collaborate. The coaching relationship is a collaborative one. You need to work with the employee to identify the performance problem, set standards and performance objectives, and develop a performance improvement plan. It becomes a matter of how can WE solve the problem.
  • Own. You need to examine your own behavior. Ask yourself: "Did I make my expectations clear?" "Did I provide the proper training?" "Does the employee have the appropriate tools to do the job?"
  • Acknowledge. As we will see later, you need to acknowledge successes through reinforcement and also acknowledge an employee’s problems, feelings and concerns. This last point is tricky. Acknowledging problems and concerns is not the same as overlooking them or allowing them to excuse behavior that is not at an acceptable level. For example, you can certainly understand an employee’s difficulty in juggling the multiple responsibilities of home and work. However, the resulting chronic absenteeism or tardiness cannot be allowed to continue.
  • Communicate. This is probably the most important behavior and the one most managers seem to find the most difficult. As we noted in the above lists, communication skills including listening, questioning, giving and receiving feedback are critical for success. You need to practice two-way communication on a daily basis. In particular, you need to clarify your expectations.
  • Help. As a manager, you are not only a coach but an advisor, serving as a resource person and a guide to other resources, both inside and outside the organization. In addition to giving help, you should also be seeking help from your employees. For example, if you need to increase sales, ask your employees to help you develop a marketing plan or at least solicit their ideas. You will be surprised how creative and innovative people can be if you give them a chance.

Following the Coaching Process

Anyone can learn to be a coach. By applying the following step-by-step process, you will improve the performance of individual team members and get the results you want.

  • Step One: Problem Identification.

    The coach describes the current undesirable performance-related behavior that is observable, measurable, non-judgmental and can be changed. Telling someone he/she has a "bad attitude" is not descriptive — it’s judgmental. Try to eliminate the word "attitude" from your thought process when dealing with employee performance. A simple example is the employee who is frequently late. In describing this unacceptable behavior to the employee, cite specific documented dates and time periods that you have observed. Be careful not to rely on hearsay.

    Using the employee you identified earlier as a case example, describe the current behavior including the situation and the person’s actions. Remember to be as specific as possible and focus on behavior not attitude.

  • Step Two: Employee Response.

    Give the employee an opportunity to explain or question. Use open-ended questions such as "What do you think is the problem?" &quot
    ;What is keeping you from getting to work on time?" In the tardiness case, the employee may give the standard excuses or may reveal a real problem preventing him or her from getting to work on time.

    Make a list of open-ended questions you could ask your employee to uncover any underlying problems or extenuating circumstances. Brainstorm some possible reasons your case employee may give you.

    Of course, when you really deal with this individual, be aware that you may hear things you hadn’t anticipated so keep your mind open to other possibilities.

  • Step Three: State Expectations.

    As a coach you need to state clearly what you expect of the employee. For example, the manager of the tardy employee restates that he expects the employee to be at her work station and ready to work by 9 am. The use of empathy is very important at this stage. You might begin by saying, "I understand that it must be difficult for you to manage all your responsibilities; however, the fact remains that you are expected to be here on time and you haven’t been doing so."

    State very specifically what you expect the employee to do or not to do. Include an empathy statement.

  • Step Four: Get Agreement.

    This step is also tricky because the employee may try various ways to dodge the issue and accept no responsibility for his or her behavior. Your careful documentation will be invaluable here. Through two-way communication, you and the employee should agree on the problem and the impact it has on the organization and others. If the person is frequently late, that action places additional burden on others. It also creates resentment that affects the entire office environment.

    With your case employee, identify the impact of that person’s behavior on others or on your operation.

  • Step Five: Improvement Plan.

    This step is critical. You and your employee must collaborate to identify clearly the desired behavior. It will be very tempting just to "lay down the law" and tell the employee what he or she should do. The two of you should establish goals that are specific, realistic, attainable, simple and time-bound, as well as strategies for overcoming barriers to reach those goals.

    Once again, use good questioning techniques to get the employee to state what he or she plans to do to solve the problem. To the tardy employee you might ask, "What do you think you can do to make sure you get here on time?" In this manner, you are placing the onus on the employee by making him or her take appropriate ownership. By the same token, you will want to ask what you can do to help. The employee may want you to do what is not be appropriate or possible. If that’s the case, it’s a good starting point for further discussion and maybe even some negotiation. The employee may offer a solution you had not considered.

    What are some open-ended questions you could use with your case employee?

  • Step Six: Gain Commitment.

    In this step, the employee commits to changing behavior or improving performance by stating exactly what he/she is going to do to improve the situation. The tardy employee who has difficulty juggling the responsibilities of getting her small children to day care with getting herself ready and to work on time may need to get organized the night before and/or get up earlier. Once you gain agreement and commitment from the employee, ask the employee to summarize the discussion.

    How would you determine if the employee has indeed made a real commitment to improving performance?

  • Step Seven: Set a time for the next meeting.

    Before concluding the coaching session, you and the employee will need to agree on a time to meet to discuss progress. The next meeting should give ample time for the individual to practice the new behavior, yet not so long that he/she assumes the matter is forgotten.

    With your case example, how long do you think you should wait before the next meeting?

  • Step Eight: Monitor and Follow-up.

    It is important to monitor the employee’s specific feedback in the form of comments, instructions, and suggestions. For example, the manager reinforces the behavior of the formerly tardy employee by saying, "Joyce, I’ve noticed that you’ve been to work on time every day, and I really appreciate the extra effort to make that happen." The coach may suggest how to do something better by saying, "Next time, John, try asking the customer how he/she is going to use the account so you can offer the appropriate choices." Another example of reinforcing positive behavior may be, "Sandy, you handled that customer well. Although you couldn’t give her what she wanted, you gave her a choice and allowed her to make her own decision." Immediate praise is a powerful reinforcer. If you want the behavior repeated, you need to let the person know.

    Using your example, write down some ways you could monitor the employee’s progress. Remember, however, you are doing this in isolation. In the actual situation, the employee would help determine the appropriate plan of action.

    Read the following discussion between the manager, Barry, and employee, Robin. Then identify the steps Barry follows to coach Robin to improve her performance:

      Barry: Robin, come in and have a seat. I would like to talk to you about a problem I have been noticing with your job performance.

      Robin: What are you talking about? I’ve been doing my job OK.

      Barry: Yes, Robin, you perform your job duties very well. However, I want to talk with you about your interactions with the customers on the telephone. On six different occasions during the past two weeks, I have noticed that you allowed the telephone to ring at least six times before you answered it. When you did finally answer it, you told the callers to wait a minute. Then when you got back to the customers on the phone, you asked them what they wanted and didn’t apologize for keeping them waiting. I have noticed this behavior on several occasions. What seems to be the problem from your perspective?

      Robin: I don’t think there is a problem. I get back to them as soon as I can. After all, there’s only one of me, and I had other customers in front of me that I had to take care of. What do you want me to do — ignore them?

      Barry: As we have discussed in our training sessions and staff meetings, we are committed to providing the highest level of customer service to all our customers both in person and on the telephone.

      Robin: Look, I’m doing the best I can. Maybe if you hired more people we wouldn’t have this problem. I can’t do two things at the same time. Besides, if they don’t want to hold, they can call back later. And I’m not the only one who doesn’t answer the phone right away, but I don’t notice you giving anybody else grief. Have you talked to John about it? He never answers the phone unless he has to.

      Barry: Let’s keep in mind that I expect everyone to provide the best service to our customers, and right now, we’re talking about your performance. I understand that at times you are pulled in several directions at the same time. I did say that the customer in front of you should take priority, however, the customer on the telephone can’t see that you have a customer in front of you, and when the telephone rings and rings, the caller gets frustrated and angry.

      Robin: So what do you want me to do?

      Barry: Robin, what do you think you could do to keep the customer in front of you happy while responding to the incoming call?

      Robin: I don’t know. That’s what I’m asking you.

      Barry: I suggest that you ask the customer in front of you to excuse you for a moment and then immediately answer the telephone. Then ask the caller if you can put him or her "on hold," or if he or she would like you to call back after you’re free.

      Robin: That’s what I do now. I tell ’em to hold.

      Barry: Robin, there’s a difference between telling someone to &q
      uot;hold" and asking if he or she would like to hold.

      Robin: What difference does it make? Nobody likes to be put on "hold" so why bother asking?

      Barry: People like to be given options. They like to feel they are making the decision.

      Robin: OK, fine. I’ll do it. Is there anything else?

      Barry: Yes, Robin, there is. When you get back to both customers — the one in front of you and the one on the telephone — be sure to smile and thank them for being so patient.

      Robin: I can’t go around with a phony smile on my face all day and be one of those gushy-gooey people.

      Barry: Robin, I’m not asking you to be phony. I am asking and expecting you to demonstrate real concern for the customer by smiling, using the customer’s name, excusing yourself when you need to answer the phone, and thanking the customer for waiting. I know I’m asking you to modify your behavior, and that isn’t easy. But what do you think you will gain by changing the way you handle the customers?

      Robin: I guess I’ll get to keep my job.

      Barry: I’m not talking about you losing your job, but I am talking about doing everything you can to communicate that the customer comes first. When the customer believes that, it will also make it easier for you in dealing with him or her. So what do you think you can do to improve the situation?

      Robin: I don’t know. I guess I can concentrate on being a little friendlier, making sure I use the customer’s name more, and answering the phone more promptly.

      Barry: Good, that’s all I ask. Let’s get together again in two weeks at the same time to discuss how things are going. How does that sound to you?

      Robin: OK, I guess. I’ll give it a try.

Using Feedback

The importance of feedback in the coaching process cannot be stressed enough. Keep in mind the following guidelines for effective feedback:

  • Be descriptive rather than evaluative. Describe observable behavior not judgments on your part.
  • Be careful not to put the employee on the defensive.
  • Be specific rather than general.
  • Describe the behavior in the context of the actual situation.
  • Discuss only behavior the employee can change. Some people have shortcomings over which they have no control.
  • Be timely and do it frequently.
  • Hold the discussion at the earliest opportunity after the behavior has occurred. Take into account both the employee’s and the employer’s needs.
  • Remember to strive for a win-win situation.
  • Communicate clearly. Check for clarity by asking the employee to state his or her understanding of the discussion. Do it when the receiver is ready to receive it.
  • Keep in mind that timing is everything.

Recognizing and Rewarding Positive Behavior

Feedback and reinforcement need to be followed with recognition and rewards. Individual recognition teamed with incentive programs can be very effective but should be tied to organizational goals and individual performance and valued by the employee. If, your organization is committed to responding quickly to customers, then you should reward the employee’s efficiency in returning phone calls or resolving complaints. That reward could be public praise, special privileges, choices of flex time, schedules, vacations, or tangibles such as gifts, money, plaques or theater tickets. The reward should depend on the person receiving it. The employee with young children may appreciate given more scheduling flexibility whereas someone on a limited income would value the opportunity to work overtime.

List some non-monetary ways you can reward your employees for outstanding performance.

Measuring Success

One of the ways you can measure your coaching success is to solicit feedback from your employees on how you are doing. One easy and relatively risk-free method is to ask each employee to complete a brief "agree-disagree" questionnaire — anonymously, of course. Your questions (or statements in this case) could include, but need not be limited to, the following:

My manager…

  • frequently tells me how I’m doing
  • gives me both positive and negative feedback
  • tells me what he/she expects of me
  • asks my opinion and involves me in decisions that affect me
  • keeps me informed about changes taking place in the organization
  • does not use threats or intimidation
  • acknowledges my extra effort with some type of praise or recognition
  • takes the time to explain new procedures and makes sure I understand provides the training and resources I need to do my job
  • treats me with respect
  • is not afraid to admit his/her mistakes or to say, "I’m sorry."

Respond to the list above as you think your employees would respond. Are there any areas you would like to improve?

Another approach would be for you to respond to the list according to how you see yourself. Give the same list to your employees, then compare your self-perception with the perception of others. It could be a real eye-opener. Regardless of the outcome, you now have valuable data that reinforces the positive approach you are already using or identifying areas for improvement.



___ How does coaching differ from training and counseling?
___ What is the goal or objective of coaching?

Qualities, Skills, Characteristics

___ What necessary coaching qualities, characteristics, and skills do you already have?
___ What areas would you like to develop further?


___ Why should the coaching process be considered a collaborative effort?
___ Are there any ways in which you could be part of the problem?
___ Do you let people know when they’re doing something right?
___ Are your employees clear about what is expected of them?
___ In what ways do you help your employees?
___ When do you ask your employees for help?

Coaching Process

___ To what extent do you document employee performance — good and bad?
___ What are some observable behaviors on which you can focus?
___ Do you tend to ask open-ended questions or questions that can be answered "yes" or "no."
___ How do you ensure two-way communication?
___ Who should develop the improvement plan?
___ What should the improvement plan contain?
___ How do you gain commitment for the behavior change?
___ How will you monitor an employee’s performance?


___ When should you give feedback?
___ How often should you give feedback?
___ What is the most important thing to keep in mind when giving feedback?


___ What tangible and intangible ways can you reward positive behavior?
___ What should rewards be tied to?



Coaching for Improved Work Performance, revised ed. by Ferdinand F. Fournies. (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Effective Coaching by Marshall J. Cook. (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Coaching for Commitment: Interpersonal Strategies for Obtaining Superior Performance from Individuals and Teams by Dennis C. Kinlaw. (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Action Coaching: How to Leverage Individual Performance for Company Success by David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo. (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service by Ron Zemke and Kristin Anderson. (AMACOM, 1997).

Masterful Coaching Fieldbook: Grow Your Business, Multipl
y Your Profits, Win the Talent War!
by Robert A. Hargrove. (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2000).

Writer: Karen Lawson

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