As a performance consultant, I find that organizations sometimes neglect to adequately coach employees toward ongoing performance management and improvement, primarily because they entrust that responsibility to managers without providing an overarching strategy. Even organizations that otherwise invest significant time and resources on training and development often do not systematically integrate performance coaching into their talent development equation.
Coaching is a continual process through which employees learn by doing, which is the very essence of OJT. This process is facilitated by coaches (think: talent developers) who monitor and analyze employee performance, provide ongoing and constructive feedback, reinforce positive behaviors, and methodically guide employees toward improving skills and competencies in order to achieve personal and organizational performance goals. If that’s not talent development, I don’t know what is!
If you are responsible for helping others acquire knowledge, apply skills, and continually develop competencies, then do not overlook personalized performance coaching. And by all means, do not leave that responsibility solely to line supervisors and operations managers.
Coaching versus managing
Coaching differs from managing in a number of significant ways. Management is about planning, organizing, leading, and controlling organizational resources to achieve goals. Rather than merely telling employees what to do, directing and controlling their behavior, and judging their performance, coaches empower employees to explore, enable employees to learn, encourage employees to try, and equip employees to succeed by guiding their ongoing progress and removing obstacles that stand in their way.
It's a process
Coaching is not an ad hoc act; it is a systematic process. More specifically, it is a continual process through which employees learn by experimenting with, adopting, and sharpening desirable behaviors. This process is guided by coaches who observe employees doing their jobs, analyze employee performance, ask open-ended questions, openly discuss that performance with employees, methodically guide employees toward agreed upon performance improvements, and follow up with them periodically to check on their ongoing progress.
Observe. The first step in the coaching process is to objectively observe an employee doing her job under ordinary circumstances. Some learning and development teams do this as a means of determining whether employees applied skills they learned online or in a classroom (Kirkpatrick’s Level 3), but my observation is that most do not. As an observer, you must be familiar enough with the job role, tasks, and responsibilities of the employee being observed to recognize whether or not specific tasks and performance expectations are being fulfilled and, if not, identify contributing factors. When an employee is not meeting expectations, there is said to be a performance discrepancy or gap. When a discrepancy is identified, you must determine what is causing it. (The book Analyzing Performance Problems by Mager and Pipe is an excellent resource to guide you through the performance analysis process.)
Discuss. The second step of the coaching process is the point at which you will discuss job performance with the employee you observed. Depending on the circumstances, you should facilitate a two-way discussion by asking the employee how he thinks he is doing, and then accurately and objectively articulating your own observations and conclusions regarding his performance.
Agree. Next it is crucial to seek the employee’s agreement regarding her actual job performance and what must be done to improve it. At this point it is important to discuss any factors beyond the employee’s control that may have contributed to the performance discrepancy. Consider factors such as job design, clarity of expectations, staffing, tools, resources, training, feedback, and rewards, among others. The goal of this step is for you and the employee to discuss and agree upon the gap between actual and optimal performance.
Plan. In step four you will identify specific behaviors to be improved, set observable or measurable outcomes to be achieved, and (depending on the nature of the discrepancy) develop a performance improvement plan and timeline to help the employee progress toward an optimal level of performance. You may also need to develop a plan for addressing any contributing factors you identified.
Follow up. The fifth and final step of the process is essential to ensure continuous, sustainable performance improvement. As a coach, your credibility depends on our ability to help develop the skills and performance of others. Merely pointing out performance gaps and pointing employees toward improved behaviors is not sufficient. You must also check in on employees regularly, reinforce their positive efforts, discuss and remove obstacles in their way, and celebrate their progress at each milestone.
Performance coaches often make several critical mistakes when coaching employees. Perhaps the most significant is not coaching employees until or unless there is a performance problem. This is tragic because people learn more through success than through failure. It is often said that “behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.” By giving employees immediate attention when they do a good job, they will be inspired to continue doing a good job; it’s that simple. Organizations in which managers and coaches foster ongoing performance-related discussions that include regular positive reinforcement produce higher employee morale, satisfaction, and productivity—which leads to better business results. Organizations where managers only point out mistakes simply do not enjoy the same results.
Another common mistake performance coaches make is that when errors and other employee performance discrepancies occur, they wait too long before discussing the matter with the employee. When employees are not told otherwise, they assume their performance is acceptable. If they are not doing what they are supposed to do yet no one says anything, the performance gap will persist or begin to worsen. Your goal as a coach is to close the gap between actual performance and optimal performance one discussion at a time. The best time to address a performance issue is when it occurs.
What’s in your toolbox?
By adding this five-step performance coaching process to your TD toolbox and avoiding the common mistakes outlined above, you can move beyond traditional training and development functions and add ever-increasing value to your organization.
From now on, when you think of employee performance coaching, consider it a talent development responsibility, an essential tool for helping employees achieve optimal performance, and a vital component of your overarching talent development strategy.
This blog post was originally published in December 2014 and has been updated with new information and resources.