10 Tips for Effective Employee Performance Coaching

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What is it that HR can learn from Formula 1 racing? Great teamwork and being super efficient at solving problems together for sure – think of pit stops that last barely 2 seconds. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Performance coaching is something else they are very good at in Formula 1. And that’s what this article is about. We’ll look at its definition, benefits, and share 10 tips for effective employee performance coaching. Ready, set, go!

What is performance coaching?

Performance coaching in the workplace is still a relatively uncommon phenomenon, as not many companies do it deliberately.

We would describe performance coaching as the use of various techniques to continuously stimulate employees to improve their skills, gain new skills, and reach their full potential.

In a way, employee performance coaching is a form of on-the-job learning. It’s a collaborative process that takes place through everyday interactions between a manager and an employee, but also between employees.

Let’s take Sales as an example of what this could look like in practice. When a manager has had the opportunity to observe a sales representative interact with a customer, they can immediately have a conversation on what went well, what didn’t, and why. Together, they can reflect on the interaction. The manager can encourage the sales rep to come up with ways to make customer interactions more productive. This leads to a positive difference in the employee’s performance.

Ideally, performance coaching should be an integral part of your organization’s talent management strategy. It can have a big impact on employee engagement and productivity – and therefore, by extension, on the performance of the business as a whole.

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The Purpose of Performance Coaching

The benefits of performance coaching

Performance coaching is a very common thing in, for instance, Formula 1 racing. If you watch the moments before the race starts, you’re likely to see Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen walk around with someone whose role will be displayed on screen as ‘Performance Coach.’

From an interview with one of these performance coaches, I learned that their job consists of ‘making sure their driver is in optimal shape to perform during the race weekend’ and ‘to always help if there are little aches and pains.’

If we draw a parallel with performance coaching in the ‘slightly more’ traditional workplace, we get the following benefits.

  • Performance improvement. Obviously… The main goal of performance coaching is to improve the work performance of employees. As every person is different, the way to maximize someone’s potential is too. Performance coaching enables organizations to personalize their talent management approach and get the best out of every single talent. This, in turn, will have a positive influence on the performance levels of the organization and help it reach its business goals.
  • Stronger relationships. For coaching to be successful, there has to be trust. Employees need to trust the organization, their coach, and they need to have trust in the whole idea of coaching. Once there is trust between the coachee and the coach, this will lead to a stronger relationship between them and ultimately to better collaboration.
  • Higher engagement levels. When employees receive personalized performance coaching, it shows them that their employer cares about them and invests in their professional development. As a result, they are more likely to feel motivated to improve their performance and contribute to the organization’s goals. They’ll feel generally more engaged.
  • Better retention rates. An added bonus of the benefits just mentioned will be that your engaged employees are less likely to leave the organization.

10 tips for effective employee performance coaching

Going back to our Formula 1 example, HR has two main roles when it comes to performance coaching:

  1. Enable and facilitate employee performance coaching in the organization to make sure that every employee is in optimal shape for their own ‘race’ and ready for new challenges
  2. Be there whenever an employee or manager experiences ‘little aches and pains’.

The tips we’ve listed in this section are all related to one of these roles.

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1. Build a coaching culture

If you truly want to enable and facilitate employee performance coaching, you need to work on building a coaching culture in your organization first. This is what that looks like:

  • in the organization, people trust each other
  • they have the ability to question the status quo and;
  • the willingness to co-create together, regardless of their position in the organization
  • individuals have a growth mindset and want to help each other grow.

There is a lot more to say about building a coaching culture; the topic deserves an article in itself. You can read all about it in our interview with a professional coach and co-founder of digital coaching platform SparkUs, Ozlem Sarioglu: How HR can establish a successful coaching culture or watch the video below:

2. Coach managers

Managers are likely to play a crucial role in making your employee performance coaching initiative a success. A common mistake, however, is to think that you can simply train managers on how to coach and that’s it.

You can’t expect someone who has never received coaching – and experienced the benefits of it – themselves to be a good coach to others. So, before you give your managers yet another hat to wear, let them go through a coaching process first.

Bear in mind that you might need external help to facilitate coaching of your more senior managers. This can be, for example, a performance consultant.

Does that sound like you need a big budget? Not necessarily. There are some great digital coaching platforms out there that can automate a part of the process while keeping human coaches involved for the moments that matter most.

Using a digital coaching platform can be a great way to scale your management coaching efforts while keeping the costs under control.

3. Identify performance improvement opportunities

Some would say ‘identify performance issues’, but I prefer the term improvement opportunities since the word ‘issues’ implies that there’s something wrong.

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While it can indeed be the case that someone is underperforming, it doesn’t have to be. It can very well be that some of your high performers are doing great but they simply haven’t reached their full potential yet.

Now, what do these performance improvement opportunities look like then? They can come in many different shapes and sizes but here are a few examples:

  • Either an employee or their manager has noticed that the former needs to develop certain technical skills in order to better do their job.
  • The employee encounters certain barriers that prevent them from performing at their best. Think, for instance, of obstacles such as time or tools.
  • An already very effectively contributing employee would like to further improve their contribution.
  • An employee is underperforming.

A question that comes to mind here is when would a manager be able to spot these improvement opportunities?

A traditional performance management approach where managers and team members meet each other maximum twice a year for the dreaded performance review doesn’t cut it here.

First, because we’re talking about employee performance coaching as a continuous process. Second, because if a manager only sits together to talk about their employees’ performance once or twice a year, they’re not likely to spot any issues other than underperformance. However, the goal of employee performance coaching is to be a learning process.

Therefore, performance management should also be an ongoing process and there should be continuous coaching conversations – throughout the entire year – between a manager and their team members.

Once this kind of continuous dialogue has been established, it will be much easier for a manager to detect performance improvement opportunities for their employees. For the employees, on the other hand, it will be much easier to raise any kind of challenges they encounter in their job with their manager.

The fact that there is this open, ongoing conversation with their boss creates trust, a stronger relationship, and a safe environment. In such atmosphere, people feel they can be open and honest without the fear that this will have a negative impact on their evaluation.

Tips for effective employee performance coaching

4. Discuss the action plan together with the employee

Once the manager and/or employee have identified the performance improvement opportunity, they can come up with potential solutions together. What the actual solution looks like depends on the issue and on the employee; even when two people need to develop the same competencies, for example, the best way for them to obtain those competencies may differ.

The action plan can consist of a combination of different learning and training methods, for example an online training course and peer coaching. It’s important that both the manager/coach and the employee agree on the action plan and that they set a date for when they’ll have a follow-up coaching session.

As an illustration, let’s say that a customer service team lead sees negative customer feedback about an interaction with a particular, typically high-performing agent. In an environment of trust we’ve mentioned above, the team lead can easily approach the agent about the interaction. Correspondingly, the agent feels comfortable sharing their struggles with the manager. For example, the agent might have insufficient knowledge about a new product. Then, they can identify actionable points of improvement for the agent together.

In this case, it could be attending a product demo and listening to call recordings of agents with a good grasp of that product. The team lead needs to make sure to collaborate rather than micromanage. That way, coaching engages the employee and becomes truly impactful in helping them improve.

The performance coaching action plan should also include the results or performance goals the employee wants to achieve and within which timeframe.

This allows everyone to a) know where they’re headed and b) enables you to evaluate and measure performance.

5. Show support

In a way, this comes back to the very first point we raised about building a coaching culture. In a coaching culture, people trust each other. Everyone in the organization has a mentality of wanting to help others grow.

When you have successfully established a coaching culture in your organization, the support doesn’t only come from an employee’s manager. It comes from their team members, HR, and other colleagues too. As such, performance coaching has become a shared responsibility for which everyone takes ownership.

This sounds lovely in theory. Yet, the reality is that many, if not most, organizations have not yet been able to establish a coaching culture. Thus, the ones who should play an important role when it comes to showing support are the managers and HR.

Here are a few ways to show employees support:

  • Express your confidence in them and let them know that you are there to support them.
  • Check in regularly to ask them how things are going and how you can help.
  • If you have a peer coaching or peer mentoring program in place, offer them one of these peer programs for additional support.

6. Promote continuous learning

A coaching culture and continuous learning go hand in hand. When it comes to the promotion of continuous learning, HR has an important role to play too. They need to think of how to create a work environment where people feel motivated to learn and improve their performance continuously.

Part of this involves performance coaching. Another part of it involves training managers to be learning evangelists and role models. Highlighting people within the organization who show great continuous learning behavior also plays an important role.

I recently spoke with the Head of People at a Swedish start-up and she said something very interesting about the role managers play in coaching and building a learning culture.

She said, ‘When you’re a manager and one of your team members comes to you with a question, don’t give them an answer immediately.’ 

Instead, she said, ‘ask them to first think of what the answer or the solution could be themselves. If you want to, you can nudge them in the right direction but not more than that.’ 

While this is may sound like a simple thing to do, it can take a while for team leaders to adopt this as a new reflex instead of giving the answer right away. Shifting to this approach will, however, greatly benefit your people’s inquisitiveness and ability to solve problems together.

7. Gather feedback

Feedback is an integral part of any kind of coaching process and it should be a two-way street. Managers should regularly talk with their employees about how they perceive the coaching activities. They should find out what could be improved to make the coaching more effective.

These improvements can concern the coach as well as the coaching activities. Here too, it’s important to regularly have these feedback sessions, ideally, this even is something that is ongoing.

Feedback doesn’t only have to come from the manager and the coaches, by the way. In a coaching culture, people are used to giving and receiving feedback and do so on a continuous basis.

8. Customize performance coaching activities

Employee performance coaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on (among other things) their potential, skills, and experience, people who are just starting out their careers require a different approach than senior leaders.

To give you an idea, here are some examples of performance coaching activities:

  • Gather feedback from all team members/people the coachee work with and share it with them; this will help the employee reflect on how to improve, both in case of underperformance and in case they want to further develop their potential.
  • Following up on the previous; as a coach, when a coachee brings up an issue they need to solve, let them reflect back on that, ask probing open-ended questions, and walk them through the process you would use.
  • As a coach, ask people to introspect on questions. Then you can add your own answers based on your experience. Disclosing your own weaknesses can also help in creating a safe psychological space and trust.

9. Regularly evaluate performance

Of course, you want to evaluate the impact of your performance coaching activities on your people’s….performance. The achievable goals you’ve set together with the employee and included in the action plan can help with this.

Regularly here means more than once or twice a year during the performance appraisal. An obvious moment to evaluate performance could be during the follow-up meetings that the manager and employee set once they’ve agreed on the action plan.

If performance management is an ongoing process in your organization and there is a continuous dialogue between managers and their teams, this will make it easier for managers to observe and evaluate performance.

10. Keep track of the improvements

A logical consequence of the previous point is that you need to keep track of the developments and improvements of people somewhere; the data needs to be documented.

One way to do that can be in a talent management system. This is an integrated software solution that enables organizations to keep track of performance management and learning and development (among other things).

Wrapping up

Employee performance coaching should be an ongoing process within teams. Don’t treat it only as a solution for underperforming. Instead, make it a tool to continuously improve the performance of every single one of your employees. Think of them all as Formula 1 drivers.

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