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Coaching and Giving Feedback to Improve Performance


Dawn Hodson, MA
Dawn Hodson, MA, President, Hodson & Associates, Ventura, CA. 93006, 805/644-3268.

83rd Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1998 

Abstract. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, 'Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can." He recognized that if people are to realize their potential they must be trained, guided, pushed, and inspired. In other words, they must be coached. This presentation will discuss how supervisors can use coaching and feedback to improve individual and organizational performance and assist employees to fully develop their capabilities.

What is Coaching. Coaching can be defined as a process to assist others make performance improvements and fulfill individual capabilities using a variety of techniques including setting performance goals, offering feedback, providing training, assigning new levels of responsibility, and offering support.

Coaching addresses both the needs of the organization and the motivational needs of employees. The organization benefits from ongoing performance improvement from all employees and employees gain a greater sense of competency and self-confidence.

Setting up the Coaching Session. Supervisors coach in two different ways - informally and formally. Informal coaching is done every day as the supervisor offers feedback, training, or direction as needed. The second kind of coaching takes place during scheduled coaching sessions. Supervisors should do both kinds of coaching but individual sessions offer the greatest potential for personal growth. Regardless of what kind of coaching a supervisor decides to undertake, it is important to tell subordinates the purpose of coaching and how they will benefit. Otherwise, employees may misunderstand its purpose.

Individual coaching sessions are most effective when scheduled on a regular basis. Meeting once a month per employee is the minimum. These sessions may take only fifteen to thirty minutes each although initial coaching sessions may last longer because of the need to set goals and to acclimate both the supervisor and the employee to the process.

As noted previously, supervisors should explain the purpose of coaching and feedback at the first session with employees and should discuss how frequently they will be meeting. They also should take questions to reduce any anxiety. Supervisors also should feel free to call these coaching sessions anything they want if calling them something different would make them less threatening to the employee.

Each coaching session can be different depending upon what needs to be covered. Sessions can be used to identify performance problems and to develop a plan for correcting them; to assign new or expanded job responsibilities; to develop an employee's skills; to discuss work problems and how to resolve them; to give feedback on work performance; to identify training needs of employees; to hold "practice sessions"; or to offer encouragement to employees who need boosting. Sometimes several different topics are covered during a single session.

Generally coaching sessions work best if both the employee and the supervisor divide the discussion time. The more employees participate, the more they will buy into implementing what is discussed. Many supervisors will even ask employees to assess their own performance as part of the coaching session.

If the supervisor has some specific performance improvements for the employee in mind, she first has to know three things. One is how well is the employee currently performing a task? Two, at what level does the supervisor want the task performed? And three, exactly what needs to be done to get the employee to that higher level? If the supervisor can't supply the answers to those three questions, the coaching session will be less than successful.

Once agreement has been reached about a performance goal, ongoing feedback is necessary. In some cases the feedback is positive and it simply reinforces the progress which has been made. Supportive comments also are important if the employee is making some progress but not at the rate expected. Last, supervisors need to offer constructive criticism in those areas where improvement is needed. In some cases, an employee may receive all three types of comments in a single session.

Sometimes it is a good idea to have a written summary of what was agreed to during the coaching session. It ensures that both the supervisor and employee don't forget what was discussed and allow things to fall through the cracks. Setting target dates and giving both parties a copy of the summary helps keep improvements on track.

Delivering Constructive Criticism. Correcting employee performance is never a pleasant task and for that reason many supervisors avoid it as much as possible. However, by avoiding it they do their employees and their organizations a disservice.

Constructive criticism is made easier if supervisors avoid criticizing the person - but instead focus on behavior. Once they make that distinction, giving negative feedback is much easier.

A good model to follow when giving negative feedback consists of four parts. First is to try to say something positive about what the person is doing. Second is tell the person what he/she is doing wrong. If there are a number of things wrong, try to limit the comments to two or three of the main problems rather than overwhelm the person with a laundry list of complaints. Third, is tell the person exactly how to make the improvements. (If you can't tell a person how to improve, all you are doing is complaining and that is of little value.) Fourth, is try to close with something positive. For example:

Thanks for getting the report in on time. You did a good job of researching it. There are a few minor things I would like you to redo. It needs a one page executive summary and the statistics on page 20 are not current. But the new data is available from accounting. Overall it looks good and I appreciate the work that went into it.

By focusing on behavior and delivering criticism in a constructive way, we show respect for people and at the same time help them become more valuable employees.

Note also that positive feedback is more effective when it is specific about what it is that has improved. Rather than making general statements, specific feedback reinforces the behavior you want repeated. Contrast a general statement such as: Your report looked good. Versus Your paper was well written, well researched, and your recommendations will enable the company to save money and reinvest in new research. Excellent job. The second example does a much better job of reinforcing the desired behavior.

Following up with Employees. Following-up with employees clearly communicates that you are serious about what was discussed during the coaching session and that you will hold employees accountable for what was agreed to. Follow-up consists of feedback to or from employees regarding whether performance has improved, whether a problem has been resolved, whether training is working, etc. It's also a good idea to do intermittent follow-up on old performance issues as well since relapse is always a distinct possibility.

When Employees Resist Coaching. Not all employees want or appreciate coaching. They may be unduly sensitive to any kind of criticism or they may be unmotivated to work any harder than they already are. Some do's and dont's can help with this problem.

  1. Always tell people in advance why you are coaching and how they will benefit from it.
  2. Always try to involve the other person in identifying and solving problems. Be patient if they don't contribute much at the beginning.
  3. Always be diplomatic when delivering criticism. People naturally try to save face so be honest but also mindful of people's need to protect their self-esteem. Never, ever use feedback to punish an employee.
  4. Vary your approach to coaching depending upon the person. Some employees may be able to handle only one performance change at a time while others will be eager to learn at a faster rate.
  5. Start with small performance changes because they are easier to accomplish and they give the employee a sense of achievement. Small victories can lead to large ones later on.
  6. Follow-up is the key to making feedback work. If you point out a problem to an employee and then ignore whether or not he does anything about it, don't expect much change to take place. Continuous follow-up is needed to lock in a new behavior and to remind employees that your expectations have not changed.
  7. Never use coaching in an effort to change people's personalities - only to modify behaviors directly related to work.
  8. If someone totally resists coaching, try to find out why and be flexible in what you do to overcome the resistance.

Coaching and Performance Evaluations. Coaching is not a performance evaluation because it is not an overall assessment of a person's work. Instead coaching consists of training, encouraging, and giving feedback in between performance evaluations. However, the effectiveness of your coaching can be measured during a performance evaluation. If no improvement has occurred, that can mean your approach to coaching needs to change or perhaps the employee does not respond to coaching. If the problem is serious enough you may have to take other measures but first try different coaching approaches.

The Value of Coaching to Leaders and Subordinates. Coaching does mean some extra work for supervisors but the return is worth it. First and foremost supervisors get a better workforce and one that is continually improving its skills. Two, supervisors develop a better relationship with their subordinates, one based on mutual respect, trust, and concern.

Behavioral research conducted over the past sixty years confirms what we already know, and that is that people respond positively to individual attention. Coaching is giving focused, quality time to each staff member to help them - in Emerson's words - to do what they can do. There is no greater gift supervisors can give to their employees and no more important role for them to play than as a coach.


Blanchard, Kenneth, and Robert Lorber. Putting the One Minute Manager to Work. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1984.

Hodson, Dawn, "Coaching Your Staff for Peak Performance." Women as Managers, August 5, 1996, 4.

Hodson, Dawn, "Food for the Gods." Women as Managers, June 10, 1996, 1.

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