NextGen Know-How: Six Strategies for Successfully Coaching Employees

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

6 minutes

Employ active listening skills and ask thoughtful questions to foster engagement.

Managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance of employee engagement scores in business, according to Gallup. And only 30 percent of employees in the U.S. report being engaged at work. One way to increase engagement is through coaching. In my experience, many managers think meeting with employees is coaching. Going over a task list and following up on items is not coaching. Performance coaching is a process.

What Is Coaching?

Coaching is a partnership you form with an employee that focuses on helping them learn and develop, for the benefit of all. As the coach/manager, your objective is to guide your employee toward his or her goals. By taking a coach approach with your employees, you can improve work performance, productivity and ultimately success in their jobs. One definition of coaching is “a mutual sharing of experiences and opinions to create agreed-upon outcomes.” It’s about helping successful people achieve results faster and easier than if they were working on their own. Good managers use coaching skills as part of their regular management style.

All employees can benefit from coaching, not just the rising stars or the struggling employees. The goal of coaching is to develop employees so they become more self-reliant and better able to handle problems and challenges. Coaching is also a more helpful way of getting things done—rather than just assigning orders and measuring progress, coaching enables employees to feel part of the process and become more productive.

Six Coaching Strategies

1. Design the relationship. As with all relationships in life, more than one person is involved here. With your employee’s input, determine how you want your professional relationship to work. Here are some questions to facilitate the conversation around designing this relationship:

  • How does the employee liked to be managed? 
  • How will you as the manager provide feedback? 
  • What do you expect of your employee? Be clear about goals and expectations.
  • What does your employee expect of you?
  • How often will you meet?
  • What are your goals for the coaching relationship?

These are just a few of examples that can be used for designing the coaching relationship. Remember, this is a two-way street. Make sure you give the employee a chance to ask questions and express what they need from the relationship.

2. Ask powerful questions. Asking questions opens up the lines of communication between the manager and the employee. The power of the coaching relationship requires that you engage the employee in the process. Asking questions allows the employee to express their thoughts and ideas and makes them feel included. Questions can be a powerful tool when discussing professional development, creating solutions to problems and managing performance issues. Focus on asking open-ended questions that invite the employee to explain. Don’t rush to give employees the answer; coach them to think of solutions to problems. Below are examples of questions that can be used in conversations with employees.

Questions for Professional Development Conversations

  • What are your career goals?
  • What is your vision of your career in five years?
  • What do you need from me as your manager?
  • What energizes you? What work do you look forward to doing?

Questions for Understanding

  • What happened?
  • What have you learned from this situation?
  • How might you handle this situation differently in the future?
  • How would you approach your co-worker to resolve this issue?
  • What are your ideas for fixing this problem?
  • What do you think?

If you need to have a difficult conversation with an employee about performance, focus the discussion around asking questions. Gather information first and then together develop options for moving forward.

3. Listen at all levels. Listen at all levels, not just to the words the employee is saying, so that you can assess what is going on below the surface. What is their body language telling you? What do you sense is not being said? Articulate your thoughts to the employee and follow it up with a question. For example:

“I sense that you are upset about your performance evaluation. Am I right?”

In addition, use active listening skills. Active listening involves focusing on the employee while he or she is talking and paraphrasing what you hear to ensure understanding. The goal of active listening is to understand the employee, not necessarily to agree with him or her. 

4. Clarify the situation. At times, you may jump to conclusions about something an employee said or did without having all of the information. Clarifying allows you as the manager to gather more information and then reframe to ensure understanding. For example, if an employee is describing a disagreement with another employee, clarifying would involve listening to what the employee is saying, asking clarifying questions and reframing the issue min your own words.

5. Acknowledge the employee. This coaching skill recognizes the inner character of the employee. When acknowledging, you are recognizing who the person is, not what they did. Although giving praise and compliments are also good skills for managers to use, acknowledging is a deeper level of recognizing an employee’s inner character and building them up. Here are some examples:

“Jane, you really showed your commitment to this project.”
“Peter, you took a big risk with this project. That took a lot of courage.”

The intent is to support the employee and recognize him or her for taking action. Acknowledging does not mean you have to agree with the employee’s actions, it is the act of empowering the employee to keep growing and developing.

6. Be curious. Asking the employee questions and showing curiosity encourages thoughtful exploration. Rather than give the employee the answer, be curious to get employees thinking at a deeper level. Here are some example questions:

  • What will finishing the report give you?
  • What makes this an effective strategy for you?
  • What’s another choice you could, make besides the two in front of you?
  • How will you move forward on this project?
  • What would your first step be?
  • If you were to break this report down into three phases, what would they be?
  • How will you gain commitment from your team members?

Using curiosity in place of interrogation or finger pointing engages the employee in a learning process and improves the ability for them to make their own decisions (i.e., less work for the manager!)

Often, managers focus on the technical side of the business and don’t put as much effort into their people. Employing the above coaching techniques sets the foundation for a productive and successful relationship with your employees. Coaching employees not only accelerates their development, but increases productivity. 

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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