#418  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 8          August 1999

Keys to Effective Coaching
by Donald L. Caruth, Ph.D., SPHR and Gail D. Handlogten., SPHR

Dr. Caruth and Ms. Handlogten are principals, Human Resources Management Systems in Rockwall, Texas (email: Dcaruth@aol.com).  They have published Staffing the Contemporary Organization (Quorum Books, Westport, CT, 1997).

All leaders and managers need to be coaches. Effective coaching is a skill that requires an understanding of human motivation and behavior as well as plenty of practice. Your role as coach is to stimulate the employee to look within himself or herself for the requisite skills for job performance. You are to help that person learn by unlocking his or her potential to maximize effectiveness.

Take the performer beyond your own limitations. You should believe that the person being coached possesses more capability than is currently exhibited and must think of the person in terms of potential.

The position of coach has typically been one of power--the coach controlled the paycheck, promotion opportunities, job security etc. For coaching to work at its best, however, the relationship between the coach and the staff member must be one of partnership, trust, safety and minimal pressure. The paycheck, promotion opportunities and job security only serve to inhibit the relationship.


When employees accept responsibility for thoughts and actions, their commitments and performance levels rise. Telling them to be responsible for something doesn’t make them feel responsible. To make them feel responsible they must be involved and accountable.

Employees will perceive you as a coach more readily if you behave in the following ways:

   Demonstrate a willingness to listen and encourage staff to express opinions and ideas, even when these opinions and ideas contradict what you expect or would like to hear.

   If you simply tell employees what to do, you have no assurance that they will be able to perform the task without specific directions in the future. You need to help them think through a situation and develop a plan of action. When they ask for advice, suggest two or more options. This enables them to take responsibility for making the final decision.

  Share your experiences and feelings, thereby creating a situation in which a staff member feels that you are very interested. This technique is particularly important for young people who have limited work experience and don’t know what to expect in the job situation, or have unrealistic expectations. Sharing experiences also provides an opportunity to define the kind of behaviors you expect. Staff will not only be able to learn more easily, but will also assign greater credibility to what you are saying. However, you must be careful avoid the role of "expert" and the arrogance associated with it. An expert, unfortunately, tends to be seen as the advice-giver and "sage," who always knows just what to do.

  You should gradually shift responsibility to your staff by providing greater freedom to act.

Ask Questions

Awareness and responsibility are better raised when you ask sufficient questions rather than simply telling them something. Asking open-ended questions (the kinds that start with what, why, when, where, who, and how) cause people to think. Asking closed-end questions provide no opportunity for thinking and may even be seen as an excuse for not thinking. By asking questions, you express respect. Staff members may not always say "Thank you," but they will probably feel good about your interest.

How should you ask effective questions? Here are a few hints:

  Ask questions that require the employee to focus on the project.

  Ask questions that encourage the person to focus at a higher order of thinking in order to give accurate and complete answers.

  Ask questions that are descriptive rather than judgmental to eliminate any risk the individual may perceive in answering them.

  Ask questions that will enable sufficient feedback so that you can verify the other person’s knowledge level and understanding.


Effective coaching will be aided with these three guidelines:

1)  Develop opinions and ideas based on observable facts. Check the accuracy of information before sharing it. Present ideas honestly, and don’t manipulate, play games or deceive. Consider the opinions of others with an open mind. Be accessible when people need to talk about problems or make recommendations. Explain the reason for a decision.  This permits staff to know when their ideas and recommendations have been taken into consideration and why those ideas were accepted or rejected.

2)  Maintain confidence. Subordinates are expected to identify problems and pinpoint their own performance shortcomings, developmental needs and career goals. Don’t betray these trusts. Doing so damages relationships and the coaching process. Integrity requires that you: (a) correct in private, (b) don’t discuss problems of one employee with another, (c) don’t discuss employee problems with other coaches, (d) keep personnel file information confidential, and (e) keep any necessary disclosures as confidential as possible.

3)  Keep commitments. Keeping commitments provides not only reinforcement but also recognition of improvement. People who are recognized for improving are more likely to continue to improve than those whose improvement goes unnoticed.  Many managers have an unwritten standard: they expect their subordinates to be loyal to them. Good coaches know that loyalty is earned through trust.

In his book Effective Coaching, Marshall J. Cook maintains that effective coaching moves an employee from WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) to WIIFU (What’s in it for us?). In other words, an effective manager creates a win-win situation for the employee, the organization, and himself or herself.

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