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When performance coaching, managers, leaders, and coaches today are faced with many different types of people to manage with varying opportunities for development. In order to see consistent performance improvement or employee development, a manger must be able to determine if the situation calls for coaching or counseling to improve upon the behaviors. The situation you are faced with depends on two factors: the employee's motivation and the type of behavior. For more on determining the employee's motivation see the article on the Hi / Lo Matrix.


Let's first begin by defining a 'coach'. When the word coach is used, many of us get a visual of a sports coach leading a team to improve and win the game. This is not unlike how the term is used in the business world. A manager becomes a coach when they not only lead their team but provide an environment that supports constant learning, development, and performance improvement. A coach is interested in the performance of their business and understands that to continue to achieve great results, the development of his/her employees is key. One widely accepted performance coaching method that we discuss in another article is the IGROW Model for performance coaching.

While a coach is always striving to obtain consistent performance improvement from each employee on their team, there are situations where coaching the right behaviors is not the right approach. As we learned in the article on the Hi / Lo Matrix, not all employees are equally skilled or equally motivated. For those employees that have a motivation or will opportunity a different approach is needed. Because these employees are making a choice not to perform within expectations, our approach also needs to be adjusted to target the behavior that is being seen. This situation is when a manager needs to change their approach from one of a coach to one of a counselor.


What do we mean by counselor? While a coach strives to provide tools and resources to help motivated employees to improve upon their skills and achieve a performance improvement, when a manager must provide counseling there isn't a skill issue but a will issue. Counseling an employee reflects that the employee is making a choice not to perform or to meet the set expectations and is a more directive conversation in regards to the immediate need for a course correction. In these performance coaching discussions the manager will not be able to provide resources for the employee to focus on performance improvement but will outline the issue and the expectation of immediate behavior change.

Real Life Coaching Experiences

Let's discuss a couple of scenarios to determine if we can identify the best approach: coaching or counseling.

Our first scenario involves Kelley, a retail store manager that recently took over a new store. The previous manager was well liked and she knew she might have challenges instituting the much needed changes she was brought in to accomplish. One employee in her store she immediately realized had some opportunities she would have to address through performance coaching. This particular employee, Jeff, had been at the store for a couple of years in an assistant manager role. He had hoped he would step into the previous manager's role with their departure. Shortly after Kelley became the new store manager, Jeff's attitude and approach with his work had drastically changed. While previously his reviews reflected a positive attitude with a strong ability to foster a team environment and a willingness to put in the extra effort to accomplish difficult goals, Jeff's behavior had changed. He was coming in late, addressing other employees and customers in abrupt tones, and missing key deadlines.

In a second scenario, Jason has recently formed a new department from newly hired employees and existing employees that were previously a part of a different department. Jason sets out to evaluate the skills of the inherited employees and notices that while most of the group shows excitement for their work, one employee, Susan, does not appear to take her work seriously. She displays this behavior by consistently under-delivering, missing deadlines, and presenting a lackadaisical attitude to peers, customers, and to Jason. Jason has had numerous performance coaching discussions with Susan around delivering on time and communicating any constraints to her deadlines but has seen little performance improvement. Susan continues to miss deadlines and does not communicate with Jason or the customers she supports.

Take a moment to reflect on these scenarios. Would you use a performance coaching or counseling method if you were in Kelley's shoes to achieve a performance improvement? What about if you were in Jason's shoes? Let's take a look at each of these scenarios and see if we can determine the most appropriate approach to achieve the desired performance improvement.

Kelley could make the assumption that Jeff is upset that she has taken the job he expected to receive. This might be the first assumption we would all make. Assumptions, however, have a way of sometimes being wrong and could mislead our approach. Rather than acting on this assumption, Kelley takes a step back and leverages her relationship with a mentor to discuss the best approach to use with Jeff so she can achieve a performance improvement. Often times managers are too close to performance coaching situations and using a mentoring relationship with someone in the organization that possess greater experience can be helpful to gain perspective. Working with her mentor, Kelley decides to use the IGROW Model to determine if she is on the right track or if there might be another issue at play. By doing so, Kelley learns that Jeff is going through a rough time at home. He understands that his performance has slipped with his focus on home matters. While you might be thinking this is a scenario for counseling, where there are no tools or resources you can utilize to assist Jeff in changing his behavior, if you think about the situation and Jeff's past performance you may have second thoughts on how you can achieve a performance improvement. Jeff was previously a very strong performer. He has shown the desire to lead and to perform but due to a personal issue, he has lost focus in other aspects of his life, including work. This is a situation where during the performance coaching session, Kelley was able to use some tools many companies, including her own, provide to their employees that include personal counseling and resources via the Human Resources department. Kelley and Jeff established a plan to utilize these resources and for Jeff to check in with Kelley if he feels the loss of focus creeping back. Since their conversation, Jeff's performance has steadily increased and the morale of Kelley's entire team has seen improvement. This is an example of successful performance coaching.

In our second scenario, Jason had already used some of the tools available to him, such as the IGROW Model, but had not been able to identify a root cause or to realize a change in behavior. Susan had a will issue where she was making a choice not to deliver on time or to communicate her progress or constraints. For this reason, Jason's approach needs to be much different than Kelley's. Jason met with Susan regarding her behavior and their previous discussions around her performance. Utilizing a counseling approach, Jason reinforced the earlier communicated expectations and communicated a direct need for an immediate behavior change and performance improvement. In this situation, a progressive performance plan may be utilized. This plan is a multi-step process to allow Jason and Susan to acknowledge the current performance issue and to make immediate change. If this change is not immediate and consistent, the plan escalates until the behavior is changed or until Jason is satisfied that Susan will be unable to change her behaviors. In these situations an employee separation may be necessary.