ATD Blog

The Role of Direct Reports in the Coaching Process

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In our last blog post, “From Buddies to Solutions Partners: How Peers Help with Coaching,” we explored the role an employee’s peers play in modern-day coaching. In addition to managers and peers, organizations must also engage managers’ formal and informal direct repots to achieve total impact from coaching. This blog article examines the role of direct reports in the coaching process.

Although coaching is often thought of as a top-down activity, upward coaching is an extremely powerful opportunity. Direct reports (whether formal or through a dotted line or matrix environment) have a unique perspective on development opportunities and can be a timely source of feedback and recognition.

L&D functions should encourage upward coaching in their organizations by taking the following steps:

Guide employees in providing upward coaching. According to our research, there are four common barriers to upward coaching:

  1. Direct reports are not expected to provide upward feedback to managers.
  2. Direct reports feel uncomfortable providing candid feedback.
  3. Managers feel uncomfortable receiving feedback about their abilities from direct reports.
  4. Feedback is not solicited in a timely or regular manner.

To combat this, L&D should promote organizational norms that support upward coaching. For example, encourage managers to be proactive in soliciting feedback or assistance when developing a new skill, and have managers articulate to their direct reports the specific areas of performance for which they need feedback.
For extra support, provide employees with discussion guides or checklists for their upward coaching conversations. Upward feedback should always focus on opportunities for improvement, as opposed to open criticism. Other proven tips for direct reports include:

  • explaining what would be useful to cover in one-on-one check-ins (content, frequency, etc.)
  • articulating the one thing the manager could do differently or—conversely—continue to do to maximize performance
  • discussing how the employee can support the manager on a given challenge.

Embed regular opportunities for upward coaching in business processes. To really make upward coaching part of an organization’s culture, L&D should work with line leaders to identify opportunities for it in existing work processes.

For example, the L&D team at a food manufacturer incorporated upward coaching and feedback into monthly business meetings. In addition to normal business discussion, meeting participants discussed the leader’s progress toward team-defined development goals. By integrating the leader’s development needs in the team action plan and formally integrating upward coaching within existing processes, the company is able to drive leader performance and team engagement simultaneously.


As we mentioned in our original post, “Are Managers Wasting Their Time on Employee Development?” today’s work environment demands that organizations evolve coaching beyond a one-way relationship between a manager and direct report.

Leading organizations focus on leveraging the connections that employees make in their daily work and using them as coaching opportunities.

Broadening coaching to also include direct reports and peers, rather than just managers, allows for more regular, in-the-moment coaching, which better serves employees’ increasingly time-sensitive and diverse learning needs.

We invite you to learn more about how leading L&D teams enables greater returns on employee development at

About the Author

As Talent Solutions Architect at CEB, Jean Martin directs the development of talent management solutions and insights across the company with heads of human resources at some of the largest global organizations. Specifically, Jean spends time working on issues relating to driving breakthrough organizational performance, and assessing, engaging and retaining the best employees.

About the Author

Thomas Handcock, is senior director at CEB. A researcher at heart, and passionate about learning, Handcock is focused on working with CEB’s global network of clients to unlock the potential of their employees and leaders. His research on areas like on-the-job learning, coaching, training design, L&D strategy, and staff capability, and the hundreds of discussions he has each year with L&D executives and their teams, have only served to reinforce his belief that human capital development is one of the most powerful levers the modern enterprise has at its disposal.

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