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Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching Employees

February 8, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching Employees

In perhaps the last ten to fifteen years, the use of coaching as a method by which to develop employees has increased significantly (and become preferred to workshop/training type experiences in many cases). However, most of this coaching has been aimed at senior individuals in managerial roles and not so much to employees in general. This is partly because much of the coaching effort has been carried out by external coaching professionals (with only so much budget to spend therefore) and also because the payoff from coaching was seen to be greatest in managerial ranks. However, this thinking is rapidly changing and as internal coaches are increasingly trained inside organizations of all sizes and types, many more opportunities for coaching employees in general are arising.

So, what is employee coaching?

For our purposes here, employee coaching takes place in any circumstances when a conversation takes place to guide behavior or to build new knowledge or skills. This may be coaching on a very informal basis, such as a short chat at a desk or in an office corridor or at a coffee machine for a few minutes. Coaching may also occur on a more formal session. For example, many leaders talk to each of their employees at least once a year for an appraisal type discussion or performance review (and to set goals for the coming year). Ideally a shorter review discussion of this kind may take place more frequently (monthly or quarterly for example). These are natural occasions for coaching to occur.

Whether the discussion is formal or informal, coaching has quite different goals versus issuing a statement or just offering one-way guidance. In a coaching situation, a leader provides the employee with the opportunity to listen to feedback and then respond and make some suggestions about how things might be done differently or in a new way in the future.

What is the best kind of employee coaching approach to take?

Despite the fact that we can coach employees in a number of different ways, the experience should ideally encompass each of the following steps every time coaching takes place:

Step 1: Seek to Establish Relationship of Mutual Trust

The foundation of any employee relationship is a leader’s ability to empathize with the individual and to be open to feedback on a regular basis. Without trust, conducting coaching effectively is an uphill task and will feel like lecturing to the employee. Coaching should therefore be a sincere and positive event with the goal of working together to render improvement and growth.

Step 2: Open the Discussion

In opening a coaching discussion, it’s important for the leader to clarify, in a non-evaluative, non-accusatory way, the specific reason the discussion is taking place. The key to this step is to describe — in a friendly, non-judgmental way that coaching discussion will be valuable to both parties so the time to talk is an investment in the future.

Step 3: Seek Agreement on the Area of Focus

Probably the most critical step in the coaching discussion is getting the employee to appreciate what the main focus of the discussion should be. Coaching should be specific to a given skill, area of knowledge or a new behavior and not a general chat about many things at the same time.

The skill of specifying the skill or behavior consists of three parts.
  1. Cite specific examples of the issue or area on which you wish to focus.
  2. Clarify what you are thinking may be possible.
  3. Ask the employee for feedback and if possible agreement on the fact that a new approach could be tried.

Step 4: Explore different approaches/course of future action with the employee

Next, explore ways in which the employee may learn new skills or behave in a new or different way. Avoid jumping in with your own alternatives, unless the individual can’t think of any. Push for specific forward options and not generalizations. Your goal in this step is not to choose a particular path, which is clearly the next step, but to maximize the number of choices for the employee to consider and to discuss their overall benefit.

Step 5: Deal with any possible barriers and offer support

Employees may raise excuses or present barriers to doing things differently at any point during a coaching discussion. To handle this, leaders should ideally seek to re-phrase broad expectations of the individual and help them to think as laterally as necessary. The goal here is to ensure that the employee is happy and reasonably confident to act and not reluctant or nervous (and feeling inappropriately stretched beyond his or her capability). In addition, the leader should always seek to handle the discussion in a calm and empathetic way and offer whatever support is requested by the individual in making proposed changes.

Step 6: Seek Commitment to Act and a Timeframe in which to do so

The next step is to help the employee choose one particular way forward (without being too pushy about this). To accomplish this step, a leader should ideally look for a verbal commitment from the employee regarding what action will be taken and when.

Step 7: Provide a final summary

Effective coaches understand the value and importance of helping an employee that he or she is coaching to execute well after the discussion. One way to do this is to provide a final summary on what has been agreed and even confirm this in a email perhaps so that there is clarity for both parties on what has been committed to happen and by when (including any future review steps).


Coaching employees is fast becoming something which every leader needs to do on a regular basis. But coaching is not about issuing commands to people to change their ways and nor is it one way advice or guidance about what should be done differently in the future. Coaching means having a structured discussion with an employee (formally or informally) which allows for two-way discussion and a joint decision about what should be done next. If this is done well, employees will more rapidly learn and grow and thereby make greater contributions to the organization of which they are a part.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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