AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Coaching Employees

Copyright 1996 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.

Four Ways to Coach Employees

Courtesy stockimages,

Courtesy stockimages,

Have you ever had this happen to you? An employee comes into your office with a question, which you answer. Somehow you sense that the employee leaves a little deflated. Or you delegate a task to an employee who you assume can do the task, only to discover later that the employee was floundering. What went wrong? In both cases, you missed opportunities to coach your employees.

Most managers know they should coach their employees. Few actually know how to do so effectively. Instead their day is a string of fires to fight and interruptions from employees.

Sizing Up the Situation

Coaching is a subtle art. It’s difficult to do because what you do depends
on the situation. If done wrong, coaching can be disempowering and demotivating.
So it’s important to learn how to do it correctly. Whenever you need to
coach an employee or team, you should ask yourself two questions:

  • Do they know how to do the task (competence)?
  • Do they have the power to do the task (authority)?

The matrix below shows the four possible scenarios as well as the actions
for each:

 Low Authority/High Competence

Barrier busting:

Advocate for the team’s position

 High Authority/High Competence


Ask questions to get the team to use their available knowledge and resources

 Low Authority/Low Competence


Ask for input at relevant steps in the process

High Authority/Low Competence


Actively show the team how to do the task

Putting the Model to Work

Let’s say you’re observing a hiring committee discussing how to conduct
an interview. You’d assume that they have the authority to do the task and
wouldn’t have been given the task if they didn’t know how to do it. That
places us in the upper right corner of the matrix (high competence/high

As you observe their meeting, they are struggling with what questions
to ask in the interviews. If you give them some specific suggestions, you’re
likely to take the wind out of their sails­like the deflated employee
at the beginning of this article. Instead, you should ask them a question
which might get them back on track. You might ask, “Would it help to
design questions around each of your selection criteria?” or “What
specifically are you looking for in a candidate?”

 Questioning Tip:If your first few questions don’t generate an appropriate response, make
a suggestion but follow it up immediately with a question (e.g., “When
I am trying to write selection criteria, I usually start with the job description.
Do you think that might help focus your discussion?”

Through your questioning, you discover they do not know how to establish
selection criteria. This drops them down to the lower right corner since
they still have the authority but lack competence. Obviously, a good coach
would step in to educate and train them.

 Training Tip:Do more than just explain. Help them do the task the first time or two.
Then let them try it on their own but review the end product before it goes
out. Hand it off in little pieces to make sure they’ll be successful.

Now imagine that while you are helping them develop criteria for the
job, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are describing a new position.
You think it’s a great idea, but the team does not have the authority to
create a new job. Human resources and others (perhaps a union) need to be
involved. This places them in the upper left corner (high competence/low
authority). They are competent (in that they know what they need in a candidate)
but do not have the final say. At this point, an effective coach becomes
a barrier buster, helping the team sell the idea to other stakeholders.

 Barrier Busting Tip: Don’t take the idea away from the employees.
Take them with you to propose the idea. Then they will get direct feedback,
pro or con.

Finally, you have gotten approval for a new position. It needs to have
a compensation study done to place it in your pay grades. Normally that’s
done by someone in human resources, so the team is probably in the lower
left corner, with little competence in doing salary studies and also low
authority. What does a coach do now? Involve them in as much of the process
as possible. First, explain how a compensation study is done. Then identify
where the committee might be able to participate. For example, they could
certainly help write the job description. They may also be able to suggest
where to go to find similar positions.

 Involving Tip: Take time to analyze where employees could participate
in the process and challenge your assumptions. Often there are many more
opportunities than it appears at first. Involving employees helps to educate
them; it also ensures their understanding and support of the final decision.

This case study shows how the coach must rapidly adapt to the changing
needs of employees. The committee was apparently given more authority than
it was ready to handle, so the manager had to step in. Ideally, you’d work
the matrix in the opposite direction, first involving them in the hiring
process, providing training, and finally turning over authority for the

The successful coach constantly calibrates where employees are in the
matrix, providing more or less directive support as appropriate. Coaching
should always leave the employees in a more resourceful state­with higher
self-esteem, confidence, and competence.

What’s the pay-back for the manager? Fewer hassles. Over time, these
more resourceful employees will solve their own problems and bring the manager
recommendations instead of questions. So if you want a little more sanity
in your life, become a better coach.


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