How to Coach Employees to Improve Performance & Build Trust

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When They Win, You Win" by Russ Laraway. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do your employees regard you as approachable? What’s the best way to coach an underperforming team member?

In his book When They Win, You Win, Russ Laraway contends that bad management is everywhere and that it’s causing enormous harm to employees and companies alike. He believes that managers should cultivate the skill of coaching to boost employee engagement and performance.

Keep reading to learn how to coach employees with Laraway’s insights as an employee experience expert.

Coaching Employees

Laraway says that, as a manager, you need to coach your workers on how to reach their goals. Not only does effective coaching make your employees better workers, but it also helps build bonds of trust and mutual support between you and your team. Those bonds, in turn, make your employees feel more comfortable and happier at work; in other words, they become more engaged.

Laraway discusses how to coach employees by encouraging what’s working well and fixing what’s not working well. He also provides some suggestions for how to measure your effectiveness as a coach.

Encourage What’s Working

Many people think that coaching employees means correcting their mistakes, but it’s just as important to provide positive reinforcement for the things your employees are doing well. Laraway says that the majority of your coaching should be encouragement and praise. People like to hear when they’re doing well, so positive feedback factors heavily into employee engagement and retention. 

(Shortform note: Positive feedback is good for more than just employee morale. Some leadership experts have noted that, unless there’s a serious problem that needs to be fixed immediately, positive feedback actually drives performance improvement more effectively than negative feedback. In other words, identifying someone’s strengths and developing them usually leads to better results and engagement than trying to fix their weaknesses. This finding supports Laraway’s point that most of the feedback you give should be praise, not criticism.)

Fix What’s Wrong

Furthermore, your employees might not even realize which parts of their workflow are going particularly well. A good manager will explicitly tell workers what they’re doing well, encourage them to keep doing those things, and explain why those parts of their workflow are so effective.

(Shortform note: Laraway emphasizes the importance of positive feedback, but he doesn’t explore in depth how to provide it. To give effective feedback, make it specific, immediate, and (if possible), public. As Laraway notes, you want your employees to understand what they’re doing well; that’s why it’s important to be specific, and to praise your employees for their achievements as quickly as possible to create a stronger mental connection between their actions and your feedback. Giving positive feedback publicly—for example, at a meeting or in a staff-wide email—makes the feedback feel even more rewarding, as the employee will then get further praise and congratulations from colleagues.)

An important part of being a manager is correcting your employees’ mistakes and helping them improve. However, people tend to feel threatened when managers tell them what they could improve, so they may become upset and defensive. Therefore, Laraway recommends that you limit yourself to one piece of negative feedback per five pieces of positive feedback. Doing so will reassure your workers that their jobs aren’t in danger and keep them in a positive mindset where they’ll be able to learn from their mistakes. 

(Shortform note: Laraway’s five-to-one ratio of positive and negative feedback is only a rule of thumb—sometimes a struggling employee may need more coaching than this. In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, engagement expert Paul Marciano points out that it’s not helpful to sit on negative feedback while you wait for an employee review (or, in this case, until you have enough positive feedback to balance it out). First of all, if you’re not providing that feedback right away, then your employee is going to keep making the same mistakes. Second, waiting to give negative feedback sometimes results in barraging an employee with a lot of criticism all at once, which is exactly the problem that Laraway’s rule of thumb is trying to help you avoid.) 

Boost Receptiveness to Negative Feedback

The goal of negative feedback is to ensure that your employee is both willing and able to learn from their mistakes. That’s why giving helpful feedback is often about how you present your feedback, as much as it’s about what the feedback actually is.

To make sure an employee is receptive to your feedback, especially if it’s negative feedback, be specific and impersonal—focus on what happened and the impact it had, rather than on the person. For example, if you didn’t get an important report in time, don’t pass judgment by accusing your employee of being careless or lazy; that will cause them to become defensive and unreceptive to what you have to say. Instead, you might simply say that the report was late, which left you scrambling to get the data you needed in time for a meeting.

Then, after you’ve given your feedback, offer a suggestion for how the employee could avoid this problem in the future. For example, the next time that report is due, they could make it their top priority for the day and set aside all their other work until it’s finished. 

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Again, Laraway says that the best way to judge your effectiveness as a coach is to survey your team. To see how well you’re doing as a teacher, ask your employees to rate you in three categories: 

1) Helpfulness. For example, ask: How useful is the feedback you get from your manager? Do you receive a good mix of positive and negative feedback?  

(Shortform note: Laraway talks a lot about how to give feedback, but he doesn’t say much about when or how often to give it. In No Rules Rules, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings says that feedback should be given frequently and as soon as possible. In other words, provide praise and criticism as issues arise; for example, don’t wait for a scheduled coaching session when it’s feedback that your employee could use now.)

2) Approachability. For example, ask: How comfortable are you with bringing problems and concerns to your manager? Do you feel like your manager is someone you can easily talk to?

(Shortform note: Some leadership experts argue that an approachable manager isn’t necessarily one who’s always warm and friendly, but rather, one who’s reliable. Therefore, to show your employees that you’re approachable, help them to understand how you reach your decisions, and make sure your rationale is as consistent as possible; if you have a reputation for unpredictability, your employees will try to avoid you. Also, show compassion for your employees by asking questions about their work before you step in to help so that your assistance is effective. Finally, while management sometimes requires “tough love,” your employees should understand that your goal is always to support them, not to scold or punish them.)  

3) Care. For example, ask: How often does your manager ask for your feedback? How well does your manager address your concerns?

(Shortform note: Asking for feedback as well as giving it creates bidirectional feedback (feedback that goes both ways). Bidirectional feedback creates an ongoing conversation between you and your employees and shows that you care about their concerns as well as the company’s business concerns. Taking employee feedback doesn’t necessarily mean doing what they say, but it does create opportunities for open, honest communication between you and your team. In other words, if an employee’s feedback isn’t practical or relevant, that’s a chance for you to explain your position and come to an understanding with that employee, instead of carelessly brushing aside their concerns.)

How to Coach Employees to Improve Performance & Build Trust

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  • Why managers are to blame for employees' lack of engagement
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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