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What Is Coaching in the Workplace and How To Do It In-Person and Online

It is probably not hard to believe that the top five single factors that cause bad days at work include: a lack of help and support from leadership, negative coworkers, lack of praise or recognition, uncertainty about the organization’s vision and strategy, and busyness/high workload. Fortunately, a leader who effectively coaches their direct reports can positively influence and mitigate all of these factors if willing, aware, and able.

This is especially important in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, such as what is currently being experienced all over the world. Fortunately, there are a few best practices leaders can adopt to begin coaching employees in the workplace, whether that is in-person or virtually.


What Is Coaching in the Workplace?

Coaching in the workplace is when a leader addresses performance objectives and helps unleash the potential within a direct report. According to Harvard Business Review, coaching provides an opportunity to act as a sounding board, facilitate transitions, and address derailing behavior. Rather than traditional performance management systems, coaching allows leaders to communicate immediate changes or actions to be taken by employees that can improve the performance of the individual, team, and organization.


3 Steps to Coaching in the Workplace

Now that we have defined what coaching is, let’s discuss how to coach employees in the workplace. Leaders who follow the steps that follow will be able to not only improve short-term results, but improve engagement, inspire loyalty, and encourage future growth and improvement.

Step 1: Model the Behaviors You Want to See In Your Employees

An important initial step to effective coaching is showing individuals what great performance looks like. It’s one thing to tell people how to behave, but another to show them through your behavior. Leaders who “walk the walk” show through their actions how to adapt to change, how to incorporate new processes or behaviors into daily work life, and how to be a reliable member of the team. Ultimately, employees are more likely to be receptive to coaching when they have leaders who live the expected and required values and behaviors every day.


Step 2: Coach Employees In-the-Moment

Coaching is more than merely giving feedback or telling people what to do. Effectively coaching others requires taking an approach that ensures the feedback will be heard, accepted, and acted upon. Great coaches take the time to connect with the people they’re coaching, carefully observe their behavior, and offer new ideas that help individuals make the jump from good to great. Coaching must always be delivered in the right context and at the right time. If it’s not, the coaching is likely to be rejected or ignored.

Many of today’s employees crave in-the-moment feedback and words of affirmation that will help them succeed in day-to-day activities. When employees only hear feedback or get direction during an annual or semi-annual review, it happens after the fact and cannot be as easily worked out with the help of their leader. Conversely, when you provide coaching in the moment – for example, helping someone with a client negotiation as it is happening – the person can immediately apply the feedback to ensure a better outcome.

Now, the best coaches communicate in a way that encourages people to remain open to coaching and willing to take action based on feedback, regardless of whether it happens face-to-face or through a screen. Bear in mind that when coaching, how you communicate feedback will be just as important as what your feedback is. For example, if you need to have a difficult coachable moment with an employee, set up time to do so in private, away from the eyes and ears of colleagues. Then when that time arrives, follow the C.O.A.C.H. framework:


Connect and Communicate: Establish relationships and create connections before coaching so it can be conducted authentically and genuinely.

    • Online Coaching Tip: In the world of remote work, maintaining connection is more important than ever. For those you lead, find creative ways online to stay connected so you always have a relationship status that has “permission to coach.” Impromptu phone calls, notes, and caring questions help demonstrate that you care.


Observe: Always observe and ask probing questions before diagnosing and advising.

    • Online Coaching Tip: This is where most coaching breaks down, so to combat this leaders must be intentional about creating context where they can see team members performing. This requires forethought and making this explicit to the team member otherwise they will default to the leader. As an example; sales leaders need to be deliberate in creating a context to be on calls with their reps where the rep is owning the entire call and not relying on the leader to carry the conversation.


Assess: Gain an understanding of the actual performance of the individual versus the expectation you, or the organization, has of them.

    • Online Coaching Tip: Leaders generally default to one of two extremes, both of which break down learning. The first is that they overly weight context for the reason for poor performance and do not assess team members against what was possible for them to achieve. The other is that they assess team members against an abstract standard that is not possible in context. Accurate assessment is based on critically thinking through what performance was possible for the individual and holding them to that level. Only once they achieve that, then leaders can raise the bar.


Clarify: Clearly distinguish the gap between the expectation and an employees actual performance so they know exactly what to work on.

    • Online Coaching Tip: As leaders we often draw from a deeper well of experience and mental models that allows us to see the competency gap clearly. It can be easy to assume communicating the gap will make it clear to others, but this is rarely the case as they lack the context and framework that we have in our positions. Therefore, take the time to ensure that those you are coaching understand the gap (remember, this often takes longer than you think!). Ensure you plan appropriate time and check for clarity by having your team member explain the gap back to you in their own words.


Explain How-To and Encourage Questions: Having concrete actions that they will be supported in implementing is imperative to having coaching translate into better performance. Whether you provide the actions or facilitate them committing to them is situational, the key is that they are explicit, mutually understood and have a time frame for completion. Mutually agreeing to the anticipated results of doing these steps and encouraging them to initiate with you for support in achieving the outcome is also critical so that they don’t become a check the box exercise but rather a collaboration to improve their results.

    • Online Coaching Tip: In an era of zoom fatigue, leaders face a dilemma in that the best time to coach is immediately after the performance but the mental space to do all 5 steps in the coaching process well requires mental and emotional energy. When faced with this dilemma consider breaking your coaching into two parts. This first happens immediately after the observed performance and deals with assess and clarify. Then ask the person to think about how to improve and commit to giving it thought yourself. At this point, schedule the second part within 48 hours to provide any additional clarity and then tackle how to do it. 


Step 3: Require Action and Results

Coaching is only effective if it results in actual behavior change. You can model and coach all day, but there comes a point when you’ll need to hold individuals accountable for performance outcomes and results. At this stage, the coach needs to require individuals to take the necessary actions to meet performance expectations. This requires ensuring accountability by providing a timetable for reaching specific milestones and by establishing regular checkpoints to review and discuss progress.


Conclusion: Training Leaders to Be Great Coaches Is a Worthwhile Investment

Coaching is a powerful leadership strategy and yet research states that “only about two in 10 managers intuitively understand how to engage employees, develop their strengths and set clear expectations through everyday conversations. In effect, only about two in 10 managers instinctively know how to coach.” What this means is additional training may be needed to equip leaders with the skills, tools, and behaviors they need to start coaching employees effectively. Not to worry though, 86% of companies feel that they recouped the investment they made into coaching plus more on top.

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