How to Use Workplace Coaching to Boost Performance

By Emily Roner | Updated: 03 May, 2019

A study from Manchester Inc. found that 77% of executives reported relationships with their direct reports as a result of workplace coaching.

Those results are because unlike the majority of manager-employee interactions that tend to be transactional, coaching sessions - when done correctly - are empowering and trust-building.

But, the key is that workplace coaching must be empowering for it to be effective. This article will explain communication strategies and conversation topics that will enable you to have effective coaching sessions.

Follow These Communication Strategies to Be an Effective Coach

A Harris Poll found that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. This drives many managers to communicate as little as possible and avoid more in-depth conversations like workplace coaching sessions.

Many of managers’ fears stem from appearing vulnerable to their employees and worrying about how their employees are going to react to negative feedback.

The right communication strategies can alleviate those concerns by equipping you with the language to have productive and interesting conversations with your direct reports.

Use these communication strategies to have effective coaching sessions:


Use a Calm, Direct Tone and Language

Discussing goals, performance issues, and other topics that commonly come up during coaching sessions can be very sensitive for employees. Your tone plays a significant role in whether employees are prone to be receptive or defensive.

Using a calm, direct and language sends the message that you are trying to help them improve and are not punishing them. Here are some additional tips to set a productive tone for your coaching sessions.

  • Use neutral language when stating the goals you’d like your employees to achieve and the issues you’d like them to improve. For example, instead of saying “Your project was one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” say “Your project didn’t meet my expectations and here’s why.”
  • Backup all your points with objective reasons. For example, instead of saying “I want you to achieve this very challenging goal,” say “I want you to achieve this very challenging goal because it will give you the experience you need to switch into a more desirable role in the company.”
  • Don’t reciprocate if your employees get defensive or otherwise reacts emotionally. It’s natural to want to react - either sympathetically or defensively - but, you must hold firm to your neutral tone.

Maintaining a calm, straightforward demeanor reinforces that coaching sessions are solely about driving improvements and not criticizing employee performance.


Provide Actionable Advice

According to Peter Hirst, a dean at MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is giving feedback that employees don’t understand and/or don’t know how to act upon.

For your coaching sessions to be effective, your employees need to walk out of each one with a clear understanding of how they can improve. Here are some tips for providing actionable advice:

  • State specific steps they should take to improve
  • Give them resources (articles, videos, introductions to people who can help them, etc. ) that will help them act on your advice
  • If possible, describe examples of people and/or projects that demonstrate what you want them to achieve
  • Encourage them to ask questions if anything that you’re telling them is unclear.

The better you get at providing actionable advice, the bigger the ROI you’ll get from your workplace coaching efforts.


Encourage Dialogue

As a busy manager, you only see a small glimpse of your employees’ activities. Thus, when you’re evaluating their performance, you have to keep in mind that there are a lot of factors that affect their performance that you may not be aware of.

Here are some examples:

  • Their software had an update that forced them to change their workflow. This made them work slower while they struggled to figure out how to complete tasks differently.
  • One of their colleagues isn’t completing their fair share of work. This caused their performance to drop.
  • They got set back because IT took a couple of weeks to give them access to the software they needed to complete their project on-time.

When you’re coaching your employees, ask them if there were any circumstances that negatively impacted their performance. This gives them an opportunity to give you greater context about what’s been happening.

Once you have that context, you can coach them on the specific reasons why they failed - not reaching out for help, not accessing available resources, etc - instead of their surface-level performance issues.


Invite Upward Feedback

According to research, upward feedback improves managerial effectiveness and job satisfaction. When it’s given consistently, it creates a positive feedback loop where managers continuously improve and job satisfaction stays high.

To yield those results, schedule time in one to two coaching sessions per month for your employees to coach you. Warn them in advance so they don’t feel pressured to give you constructive criticism on the spot.

Be mindful that, at first, many employees will refuse to give upward feedback because they’re afraid of negative repercussions. Here are a couple of ways to reassure them:

  • Tell your employees what behaviors you think you need to improve. Ask them if they agree and what advice they have for you.
  • Share examples of times when you’ve coached your superiors on behaviors they need to improve.
  • Promise them that you won’t use their feedback to assess their performance. If you have a good relationship with them, they’ll trust you.

When they coach you on ways to improve, thank them for their feedback and ask them what action steps they think you should take. This kind of positive response is key because it encourages them to give you more feedback in the future.


Focus on These Coaching Topics to Boost Performance

The topics you discuss in your workplace coaching sessions matter just as much as the communication strategies you use. Here are the three most empowering topics to cover. 


1) Improving Their Quality of Work

According to research from LeadershipIQ, only 29% of employees know if they’re doing a good job at work. This severely hurts performance since employees often do their work using incorrect or inefficient methods without knowing it.

Thus, consistently coaching your employees on ways to improve is one of the most powerful ways to improve your workplace. Prior to each of your coaching sessions, review your team member’s work and identify anything that they could have done better. If the person you’re coaching isn’t your direct report, ask their manager if there’s anything the person needs to improve on.

Here are some tips to make your coaching more effective:

  • Ask them to explain their thought process as they did their work. Not only does asking this make your coaching session less confrontational, it helps you understand how you can best help them improve.
  • Focus on how they can improve rather than criticizing the things they did wrong. The purpose of workplace coaching is to empower your employees’ success - not to punish them. Keep your meetings as optimistic and forward-looking as possible.
  • Recommend specific resources that will help them act on your suggestions. In most cases, people make mistakes due to a lack of understanding. To help them make lasting improvements, you need to make sure they have the knowledge not only to fix the specific issue but also to prevent similar ones from occurring in the future.

At the end of every successful coaching session, your team member should walk away equipped with the knowledge they need to immediately boost their performance.

Photo of a female manager coaching her direct report on how to complete a project more productively

2) Setting and Achieving Goals

Research shows that setting goals with your direct reports boost their performance by giving them the direction and motivation to focus on the activities that drive their success.

The key to successfully coaching your employees to be more goal-oriented is tying your organization’s objectives with their professional ambitions. During your coaching sessions, get to know what projects they’re most skilled at and collaborate with them to set challenging goals in those areas.

Often, employees are apprehensive when tasked with ambitious goals because they fear there being negative repercussions if they don’t achieve them. To get your direct reports excited about their goals, coach them on how to create an action plan that gives them a clear path toward goal achievement.

Throughout the quarter, use your coaching sessions to check in on their progress and make actionable recommendations for how they can improve. If you notice they’re tracking poorly and your coaching efforts are not making a difference, determine whether you need to reassess their goals or take other actions to improve their performance.


3) Helping Them Find Solutions to the Challenges They're Facing

81% of employees say they want to be able to depend on their managers. Workplaces are full of unexpected challenges whether it’s a key employee quitting suddenly and leaving everyone else to pick up the slack, budget restrictions that make everyone’s jobs more challenging, or other issues that arise.

During these difficult times, employees want to be able to depend on their leaders for guidance and resources. An easy and effective way to offer this dependability is through your coaching sessions.

When you know your direct reports are experiencing challenges, coach them on the best ways to navigate those issues and, if possible, offer suggestions on how to prevent the issues from occurring in the future. You should also encourage them to share any unknown challenges they have and give them advice on how to drive the best possible outcome.

Using your coaching sessions not only to improve their performance but also to support them during tumultuous times in your workplace, builds trust and solidifies the message that your goal is to help them thrive.

About the author: Emily formerly led Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others.