What is Coaching?

By Alyce Johnson

In the mid-1990s, MIT sponsored a research study of its employees and outside organizations to identify how it could improve the effectiveness of managers at the Institute. The research was based on the belief that in the current work environment, effective performance management systems must support a workforce of knowledge based employees -- that is, employees who value the acquisition, application and sharing of knowledge. Organizations that want to capitalize on knowledge-based employees will need to shift to a consultative and participative management style. That style is often described as coaching. Coaching requires managers to transition from the traditional role of controlling and monitoring employee performance to a more consultative role. Coaching is a means for developing a partnership between the manager and employee that creates a shared understanding about what needs to be achieved and how it is to be achieved.

Coaching, defined as an ongoing approach to managing people:

  • creates a genuinely motivating climate for performance
  • improves the match between an employee's actual and expected performance
  • increases the probability of an employee's success by providing timely feedback, recognition, clarity and support

In a performance management cycle, coaching means providing ongoing feedback and support to the employee throughout the year. Coaching gives the employee an opportunity to hear about aspects of his or her performance in "real time" and to play a role in figuring out how to best adopt or modify their behavior for success.

The foundations of coaching

Several basic assumptions form the underpinnings of successful coaching:

  • Employees want to succeed at work.
  • Employees can contribute ideas on how work should be performed.
  • Employees will work hard to achieve goals that they have played a role in developing.
  • Employees are open to learning if they recognize the value to them in terms of improved success on the job and subsequent reward and recognition.

These assumptions are the basis for the trust that is imperative in any coaching relationship. Research has shown that when a manager operates under these assumptions, employees respond positively. This is true even if the employee is new or is experiencing some performance problems.

The coaching role

There are four main dimensions to the coaching role:

Providing Direction

This involves articulating the department's goals and values in a clear concise manner and is especially important in the planning phase of the performance management cycle. Employees need to understand the context in which they work so that they can see the link between their performance and the department's overall success. The clearer the department goals are, the easier it will be for employees to translate them into their own individual goals. Coaching direction involves ensuring that employees stay focused and understand priorities. Employees may also need technical direction in terms of learning new tasks or taking on new assignments. Finally, the manager as coach is responsible for establishing the commitments that will move employees toward achieving results.

Improving Performance

As a coach, the manager is responsible for creating a learning environment where employees are supported in their efforts to continuously improve to meet today's challenges. The coach does this by:

  • assessing current capability
  • providing feedback
  • helping the employee to identify what is needed
  • creating opportunities to fill in the gap

If continuous improvement is to occur, the coach must provide a "safe" environment for creativity and risk taking. Mistakes must be viewed as lessons learned. Setbacks are opportunities for development. With this kind of support, the employee will have the confidence necessary to attain the next level of ability.

Opening up Possibilities

One of the goals of coaching is to develop capabilities for the employee to solve problems and make decisions. This is done by asking the right questions, challenging the employee's thinking, offering new options, supplying additional information that expands employee's understanding or providing a new interpretation to a situation. Coaching empowers the employee to be part of the decision making process.

Resource for Removing Obstacles

In some cases the coach may take an active role in paving the way for the employee by confronting, when necessary, those people who are obstacles to the employee's progress or providing additional resources if necessary. At other times, the coach serves as a sounding board for the employee as he/she develops his/her own strategy for overcoming the obstacle.

Will coaching work for the problem employee?

Too often managers deal with employees who have performance problems by vaguely referring to a problem area. The specific facts that indicate a problem and the specific measures that must be taken in order to address the problem are rarely articulated. Too often, an employee who is exhibiting a problem is left out of the process when a solution to the problem is being developed. Performance management coaching calls for swift, clear and concrete identification of the performance or behavior problem, as well as joint resolution of the problem before it becomes a serious obstacle to good performance.

Misconceptions about coaching

There are several misconceptions about coaching. Some managers may feel that coaching is jargon that enables abdication of responsibility for supervision. Employees are under the impression that coaching means managers can no longer tell them what to do. Neither assumption is correct. Coaching is a sophisticated management style that requires developing a relationship that empowers employees by building confidence and competence.

Rather than being a "hands off" approach, coaching means being very involved in the employee's progress. The emphasis is not on checking and monitoring but on developing a higher level of performance. Employees are not free to do as they wish, but are held accountable for meeting mutually established performance plans. The overall objective is always employee commitment to achieving better performance and organizational goals.