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Coaching Employees? How to Avoid the 7 Major Pitfalls

Feb 08, 2021

Two young businesswomen having a meeting in the office sitting at a desk having a discussion with focus to a young woman wearing glasses-2Coaching employees is like driving a stick shift: It's fun if you know what you're doing, but a disaster if you don't. Or if you don't know what you don't know.

And while stick shifts have thankfully disappeared along with disco, employee coaching is here to stay. Here's how to make it count—and how to avoid the seven pitfalls that can make for a bumpy ride. 

Employee coaching pitfall #1:

Not having been coached yourself 

If you haven't been coached professionally, it will be next to impossible to get coaching right with one or more of your employees. You won't know the pattern: how coaching works or how it should work. Even with the best intentions, lack of experience can lead to lack of empathy.

This is why, for example, as part of my master's program in counseling, I had to document 25 hours as a counseling client: to understand the experience from the view of those I would be serving. How well do you know the feeling of being coached? 

Employee coaching pitfall #2:

Coaching someone who isn't coachable

This is not a value judgment. But coaching does require an investment—and like all investments, it should yield a respectable return. To form a picture of how coachable someone is, ask yourself:

  • How does this employee respond to feedback? If the answer is "Not well" (or not at all), I would not look for coaching to change that. 
  • Does he take charge of his own professional development—or simply wait to be told what to do?
  • Is she grateful for opportunities to grow—or are growth opportunities seen as an entitlement? 

Someone who is generally grateful, willing to take feedback and use it well, and actively seeking out ways to grow professionally will be highly coachable. And as we'll see below, this makes the coaching highly enjoyable and productive for both parties. 

Employee coaching pitfall #3:

Coaching employees for the wrong reasons

Employee coaching should not be used to avoid confrontation, delay a tough yet necessary decision, or to mask a deeper problem. Coaching should not be a euphemism for something negative. 

Yet it often is. Even though employee coaching having been around for decades, it is still somehow misperceived as punitive or remedial. As in, "You need coaching."

On the contrary, employee coaching works best when you have someone with high potential who may just need a little more nurturing to reach the next level. For example: 

  • The individual contributor who could be your company's next manager
  • The newly promoted contributor, who's now managing others
  • Anyone else on your team who is adjusting to a new and challenging role

How and when you choose to coach employees, or have them coached, will affect how it is perceived throughout your organization—and the perception of your organization itself: either as a place where professional development is seen as punishment, or one where growth is openly encouraged and celebrated.

Employee coaching pitfall #4:

Having unclear outcomes  

How will you measure coaching success? Will it be in specific performance metrics—or in more subtle, subjective terms, such as "I feel more confident owning my role." (Don't underestimate the value of that.) The key is to identify your outcomes up front, then determine if coaching is the best vehicle to help you achieve them.

Employee coaching pitfall #5:

Doing "to" instead of doing with

If you remember the old Matt Foley character played by Chris Farley, you know part of what made that character so hilarious was his overbearing, over-the-top style. Matt Foley didn't meet others where they were, he practically scared them. This is a prime example of doing "to" instead of doing with. 

What does doing with look like? A few examples: 

  • Speaking in terms of we and us, not simply you or I 
  • Listening rather than lecturing
  • Meeting clients (or in this case, employees) where they are and giving them a voice in the agenda

This gets back to the importance of having been coached before attempting to coach others. If you have been coached and coached well, you know it is a collaboration. Yes, the client does the work. And the client is the expert on his or her own life. But the coach serves as a trusted guide. 

Employee coaching pitfall #6:

Coaching employees when that's not your strength

Please don't coach another human being to "overcome your weaknesses." Coaching takes certain skills, such as listening and reflecting, along with a certain temperament. If these aren't your strengths or cup of tea, simply say so. Both you and your team will be much better off. You will then be free to (a) give that role to someone who enjoys it and is good at it, and (b) get back to focusing on your strengths.

Employee coaching pitfall #7:

Adding this role to an already full plate

Sometimes everything lines up for you to take on the coaching role—except your schedule. If you have the time, temperament, skillset and capacity, coaching employees to new levels of performance is an extraordinary gift.

But if one or more of these elements are missing, including your ability to give it the energy and time it deserves, results will be slow, poor and frustrating. This is a judgment call that only you can make. Which decision will you be most thankful for when you wake up tomorrow morning? 

Introducing our new 21-day employee coaching program

Do you have a high-potential employee who could add more value, with a bit more guidance? Or a new manager who's still adjusting to their new role? That's why my team and I created the 21-day coaching program. To see if this program is right for someone at your organization, I invite you to click here to tell me more about your needs. Together, at no obligation to you, we'll determine how I can help. 


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