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What is Coaching in the Workplace?

Coaching is a term thrown around often in the workplace but can have various meanings and interpretations. In this article we'll focus on what coaching looks like, the characteristics good coaches hold, and why coaching is important.

What is Coaching?

Often when we think of a coach, the picture that comes to mind is that of a sports coach crafting young athletes into winning teams. Coaching sports versus coaching in the workplace has many similarities but there are key differences too. Sports coaches are often demanding and forceful in their approach to get the most out of their players. They are also typically experts on the skills they are demanding as they were previously athletes themselves. 

Coaching at work takes a fully different approach. In a business environment the key to a successful coaching relationship is collaboration. The coach is no longer directing or acting in an authoritarian manner but collaborating with the employee or coachee to identify, target, and plan for performance improvement. This is a reason, coaching in the workplace can be a difficult skill for managers to master as most managers are used to directing work rather than achieving it through employee development. In this situation the coach is acting as facilitator to help the employee achieve self realization around opportunities for improvement by asking probing, and often tough, questions and challenging the employee to think about their goals as well as how to achieve them. This also means that the coach does not need to be an expert on the development area. Sure, it helps but since coaching is more focused on the employee owning their own development the coach can help by providing resources in place of direct expertise. 

 “Coaching takes a holistic view of the individual: work, corporate values, personal needs and career development are made to work in synergy, not against one another.” – British Journal of Administrative Management 

Coaching in the workplace typically focuses on an improvement in individual performance against key performance indicators or job expectations but can also focus on career development and employee growth. Using performance data, past experiences, and feedback from the manager and third parties the coaching conversations center around the employees needs not the coaches. That doesn't mean that the needs of the business and performance targets are not considered. This data is an integral part of the conversation as its in the employees best interests to achieve more and in turn move their career forward or earn more money. 

So in a nutshell, what is coaching? It's a collaborative process between typically a manager and employee focused on discussing goals, identifying opportunities for improvement in order to reach those goals, and planning for development where the coach facilitates the employee's self realization of the growth opportunities through probing questions and discussion. 

What Coaching in the Workplace is Not?

Coaching is not a disciplinary action. If managers are only doing coaching when there are performance issues not only will this create distrust around the process but it will undermine any benefits that other employees can get from coaching conversations. Coaching in the workplace must be deployed both as an employee growth tool and when needed as a part of the disciplinary performance improvement process

Coaching is not a training session but should certainly be a method to reinforce what an employee learns in training courses. In fact, employees that receive reinforcement coaching after a training delivery are much more likely to remember and implement the learnings. 

Coaching is not counseling, though at times coaching conversations can venture into personal issues since people's personal and professional lives have impacts on one another. For example, an employee who is going through a breakup may also experience a dip in performance at that time as one situation impacts the other. Helping the employee to realize this impact and plan actions to keep work performance high while sorting through personal problems should be a key part of the discussion. On the other hand when problems are more serious such as, drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues it is important to guide the employee to a professional that can provide the professional counseling they need. 

Why is Coaching in the Workplace Important? 

There are many benefits of coaching in the workplace for the employees, managers, and the business’s bottom line.

Obviously coaching in the workplace will achieve results in various areas of the employees skillsets. Depending on the focus of the coaching the employee may experience an increase in performance stats or a competency growth that prepares them to move forward in their careers. Because the employee actively participates in opportunity identification and development planning, the employee also feels a stronger ownership for their own development.

Organizations that have a strong coaching culture also enjoy employees who express greater job satisfaction and higher retention rates than organizations who do less coaching. This is likely tied to the fact that managers and employees build stronger relationships through their coaching conversations and since the number one reason employees state for leaving a job or position is “their manager” its no surprise coaching would have a positive effect in areas far beyond the employee’s performance.

With the rapid pace of change in today’s markets and businesses coaching has become an integral part of how we grow our teams and stay ahead of the curve. Managers that focus on coaching build and lead teams that are better prepared to implement change as they are already focused on continual improvement for their own performance. This means that they’ll more readily understand and champion needed improvements for the business overall.

From a financial perspective coaching is far less costly to budgets than formal training and often times reaps the same if not greater rewards. In addition, performance problems cost businesses in a big way so getting the best from each and every single employee has real impacts to headcounts and budgets.

When does Coaching in the Workplace Happen?

Often times managers already conduct scheduled meetings with each of their direct reports. This can be an ideal time to conduct coaching conversations as both the manager and employee are expecting to meet and can be prepared for the conversation. A little forethought from both the coach and coachee can really help to further the outcomes of the conversation.

Not all coaching sessions need to be or should be scheduled. You’ve probably heard the term ‘teachable moments’ in the past. These are moments or opportunities to provide coaching in real time as a situation or scenario is unfolding. Often the best ways to spur learning is to relate it to a specific situation and what better situation than the one the manager and employee are actively involved in at the moment.

Key Characteristics of a Successful Coach

  • Trustworthy - The foundation of a good coaching relationship is trust. An employee needs to believe that the there is a level of confidentiality to what is discussed and trust that the coach will be discreet when assisting with their development.

  • Confident - Fake it till you make it? No, but coaches do need to approach each conversation with a level of confidence in order to guide the employee to the best areas of opportunities to focus on. If under-confident, spend time planning before the conversation focusing on what some potential root causes are around the performance or competency area the discussion will target. This will ensure some familiarity and ultimately confidence with the topics from the start.

"I think the most important thing about coaching is that you have to have a sense of confidence about what you're doing." – Phil Jackson

  • Good Listener - In order to ask the right questions to guide the coaching, the coach must be a good listener taking in both the details and the perspectives of the employee. Understanding the employee's thought process will the coach to guide the conversation in a way that reaches the root causes to target for performance improvement. 

  • Provides Accountability - One of the main reason coaching relationships are successful is the level of accountability it provides. While the employee self identifies opportunities (with the guidance of the coach) and crafts the development plan, knowing that someone is going to be checking on their progress helps to drive momentum for change.  

  • Delivers Behavioral and Actionable feedback - A key instigator of change is feedback  so a coach must be able to provide examples of what the needed outcome would look like. The coach should also be able to describe specific times where the employee did or did not demonstrate the skill well so that the employee has an actionable point of reference. 

  • Cheerleader - Everyone wants to feel good about the progress they've made. A coach needs to make sure they are the employees biggest fan and cheer on each step forward they make towards their goal. 

  • Probing - Asking the right questions is key to helping employees self identify areas of opportunity for improvement. Asking the right leading questions will guide the conversation in a way that the employee realizes what changes to make and ultimately owns the action plan that will be created. 
  • Empathetic -Having an understanding approach and being able to empathize with the employees situation will breed trust in the relationship. A good coach has a high degree of emotional intelligence and an ability to put themselves in the shoes of their employee. 

  • Realistic - Some changes or improvements won't be overnight miracles. A good coach needs to be realistic with their expectations and should help the employee set realistic improvement targets with progress checkups along the way. 

  • Consistent - Aristotle once said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit." To make coaching successful you must be consistent at it. 

The Coaching Model as a Key Management Tool - An overview of popular Coaching Models

Development Action Planning - How to draft plans that achieve results

Employee Motivation and Their Will to Perform - Gain an understanding of what impacts an employees drive to perform

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