As a manager, part of your job is to coach and mentor your team members.
This might be when they are coming up against obstacles, are underperforming, or even when they are performing perfectly well—so they can get to the next level or take on more responsibilities.
Whether we like it or not, everyone runs up against challenges in their role, and that’s where coaching in the workplace is useful.
You’ll sometimes see coaching and mentoring bundled together as one thing, but there are differences between coaching and mentoring.
Mentoring usually refers to providing direction or advice based on your own personal experience. Often a mentor will have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to mentoring.
Coaching in the workplace is performance-oriented, and, in the context of employer-to-employee, it’s usually not just a recommendation. When you coach your employees on their performance, you expect them to put time and effort into self-improvement.
Regardless of whether you have formal coaching skills or if you have a more hands-off leadership style, there will be times when you need to coach your team members. Having a specific coaching process and a structure can be helpful in effective coaching.
(The guide to one-on-one meetings has some good tips that are relevant to the coaching process as well.)
When you are putting together a coaching conversation, it’s important to set the context and purpose of the coaching.
For most people, when they hear you want to set up a coaching session, their first thought is that they are in trouble. Depending on the situation, you might want to emphasize that the coaching process is designed to help, not discourage.
Coaching is a way of investing in the employee to make them better at their jobs or prepare them for broader responsibilities or new assignments. Knowing that you are thinking of their career trajectory takes the pressure out of the situation and emphasizes your shared interests.
If an employee has requested coaching, depending on your leadership style and your coaching skills, you might ask them to write something up about why—or even record a short video to prepare you before the meeting.
When you coach people, by definition, you’re pointing out areas where the person needs to improve. In other words, it’s reasonable for them to think that they are getting negative feedback or having their weaknesses exposed.
Be sensitive to their personality type and communication style when giving feedback. Check out this article on emotional intelligence or the blog on feedback for additional pointers No matter what their communication style, it always helps to start first with what has been going well. You might mention two or three things that are good about their work or their handling of the situation before you go into the area for them to improve. Even if you dive right into the problem, creating an emotionally safe environment is key to coaching.
The most effective coaching is coaching that is specific and actionable. There are three areas where you need to be specific.
Here are some coaching examples that illustrate this formula.
If you tell someone that they need to increase the quality of their work, you know what you mean by quality, but how do they know? A specific indicator might be that their code has more bugs than average.
If colleagues are complaining about someone’s behavior or personality, be specific. Are they interrupting people, speaking in a harsh tone, or withholding information? Telling someone to stop being rude is different than telling them to stop interrupting in the middle of a sentence. One is vague and the other is specific and actionable.
Actions to take might be in the form of multiple suggestions.
For example, to reduce code errors, the programmer could spend a few hours planning or co-coding with someone who has cleaner code. They could be required to have code reviews, or they could attend training. These are all practical suggestions, and it can be useful in your coaching to offer multiple suggestions.
For problems that are behavioral or cultural, rather than making suggestions, you could do “mock conversations” with the person you are coaching or send them to communications courses.
Finally, it’s key to set up a way for them to know they are making progress. You might check in at regular intervals or have them self-report on the progress they are making.
One of the biggest stressors during a coaching session is the feeling that an employee is being singled out, punished, or reprimanded. It's uncomfortable for everyone.
To avoid setting that kind of tone for your coaching meeting, take a moment to mentally reframe the meeting. This meeting is not about what someone has done wrong. It's about how you, as their manager, are going to help them improve.
You're on the same team. You want your team to succeed. You have a plan to make that happen, and here it is. That's what good coaching feels like.
Approach the coaching meeting from this point of view and your employee will not only be relieved, they'll be motivated to work extra hard at overcoming their challenges.
The following meeting template can be used to help set up your coaching meetings with your employee. Having an agenda will help you keep the meeting clear, professional, and helpful.
Discussion topics, example questions, and general advice for mentorship meetings.
Learn the secrets to setting up your team for success.