Unlock Your Leadership Potential: Strategies for Performance Coaching

Unlock Your Leadership Potential: Strategies for Performance Coaching
Human Resources

What is the biggest challenge many leaders face when developing in their role? Recognizing that addressing performance issues is the main part of their job, and that it actually fosters productive relationships with their employees. Managers often express frustration with wanting to get to their “real work” rather than spending so much time on the “people stuff”. But in my experience, the “people stuff” is the real work.

Gallup[1] found that only 14% of employees feel their performance is managed in a way that motivates them and 26% receive feedback less than once a year. Only 21% feel their performance metrics are within their control, and 40% feel as if their manager holds them accountable for the goals they set. Many managers admit they have room to grow. Four in 10 acknowledge they have not achieved advanced proficiency in managing performance.[2] Gallup conducted a study comparing how managers think they are leading their teams versus how employees think they are being managed. Two of the top things employees want from their managers is quality feedback and to be approachable with any type of question, yet managers are not doing as well as they think they are in doing either of those.[3]

This is what performance coaching is all about. Coaching is a leadership style, and it is becoming the expectation organizational cultures. I often hear leaders say they coach; however, in many cases, they are actually telling, directing, or using a mentoring approach. While a situation may call for those tactics and they might be helpful, they are not coaching. Coaching is an approach that facilitates individuals in drawing on their own experiences and capabilities to set and reach their own objectives.[4]

Managing Performance

Fewer words in workplace language create a tighter cringe than “managing performance”. If this resonates with you, you’re not alone. In my observation, many leaders avoid these conversations mainly because they don’t feel equipped to initiate conversations with employees who have fallen short of expectations. They fear the experience will be negative. Leaders talk themselves out of taking action because they get caught up in the “what if’s” of how the conversation may go – “What if they argue? What if they get defensive? Cry? What if nothing changes?” And the list goes on.

Let’s instead reframe the opportunity into an optimistic perspective and focus on the ways leaders talk about, assess, and acknowledge the contributions of their employees.

Here are common scenarios that leaders share in our Performance Coaching program. It sets the tone for what they want to work on during the program. Any of this sound familiar to you?

  • How to get better at following up and confronting staff. Some managers are afraid to have difficult conversations, such as addressing underperformance. They don’t know how to do this.
  • How to manage a former peer who is now your direct report.
  • How to incorporate a coaching component in performance appraisals. This includes making appraisals more positive with fewer surprises, having difficult conversations, and holding employees accountable before appraisals so people feel supported along the way.

3 Best Practices for Performance Coaching

Consider these three factors to help you embrace your role of engaging in performance coaching conversations with your people:

  1. Coach the person, not the problem: Take a growth mindset approach, believing that the employee can learn, adapt, and improve in their role. If you believe the person you are coaching has some experiences to draw from in seeking a resolution, shift the focus from the external problem to the person. The conversations may feel uncomfortable, but the outcomes are remarkable. It is a combination of providing support and challenge, with the goal of the employee feeling ownership over the outcome.
  2. Your job is to notice: Focus on observing the person’s progress over time, noticing both effort and results. Between coaching conversations, your job is to notice and encourage observable behaviours that indicate the employee’s growth. Understand that progress builds with each coaching conversation over time. It’s myth to think that one coaching conversation can ensure an employee course corrects or is successful at using a new skill. Manage your expectations and adopt a feedforward mindset, which focuses on future actions rather than only talking about the past, which is unchangeable. Don’t make feedback the sole focus. An approach to embrace both effort and results was a key focus for a CEO I know and she regularly encourages her team to value the learning that comes from making a mistake, and that learning includes not repeating the mistake.
  3. Assess yourself as the leader: The foundation of employee-manager relationships is crucial for employees to know how they are doing. If not you, then who? You are the leader, and that role’s foundation is to foster growth and performance of others. Here is some advice from an experienced leader who eventually gained the skills to embrace performance conversations. He reframed his role and explained, “I found an alternative path to the outcome. I thought that if I can find an avenue to do it, let’s do it together in our respective roles – my role is to use a coach approach, and the employee’s role is to find a path to owning their role in improving their performance. I found role clarity of the manager and of the employee, which helped us move away from taking it personal to taking an objective view.” Ask yourself, “What’s been my contribution to the current state of the employee’s challenge or failure? Did they hear from me before now? Did they have the skills, team support, and doable timelines?

Performance Coaching Example

A coaching conversation looks different every time. Consider this scenario where Lana is frequently away from her desk without her manager, Grant, knowing where or for what reason. Grant finally initiates a conversation about it and decides to take a coaching approach. Grant’s script might sound something like this:

“Lana, I noticed you were away from your desk all afternoon again. We should have an open, honest conversation about it. My goal is to give you clear feedback on the impact and ensure we are collectively working toward your development.” This sets the tone for a collaborative discussion based on the manager’s observation.

“Let’s take a moment to understand how we arrived here and what factors got us here. I’d like to invite you to assess your performance lately. Did you accomplish all your goals for that project and meet the expectations we set? I noticed the project is delayed a week. What’s working well and what’s not? I’m concerned, as I don’t know where you have been the last few afternoons.”  This allows you to look back and be curious without judgement.

“What aspects of this project do you feel align most with what you enjoy about your role? Could we talk about any experiences with this project you are hoping will work out? I’d like to understand the reasons for the delay and what you’d like to me know about it?”  This starts to acknowledge what is important to them as you give examples of what’s not aligning with is expected .  This leverages the fact that there is a strong link between employee engagement and performance improvement.  What’s demonstrated here is focusing on the person, not the problem.

“Your work in the department is fantastic and it always contributes to make things better for the whole team.  We’d be lost without you. This project is critical for our customers, as you know. What additional contribution can the team help with at this point?” A manager’s role in offering positive comments is really important to address any setbacks or when an employee is not meeting expectations.

Ask the employee, “How would you like to get the project back on track?” This is a feedforward approach, as the manager is providing support to help create an actionable next step forward. If Lana hasn’t mentioned it by now, this is also when she may explain what is really is the issue or challenge for her. This sets the stage for the wrap up question of “What is your next step? When will you do that? How will we know it is complete? What might get in your way and what will you do to mitigate that?”

There is value in scripting what you want to say before engaging in the conversation. Try bookending the conversation – develop your opener and your request. Practice in a safe environment by finding a coaching partner, perhaps another leader who is also working on increasing their performance coaching skills.

If there’s one takeaway, it’s that coaching is a skill and a mindset that develops over time. Keep these three factors in mind to excel at engaging in performance coaching conversations with your team: coach the person not the problem; continually observe; and regularly assess yourself as the leader.

About the Author

Linda Allen-Hardisty is an organizational development professional (Queens IRC OD Certificate), an executive coach (ICF MCC professional designation), a team coach (EMCC Global Accreditation), and a Forbes Coaches Council contributing member. She’s built a reputation as a vibrant, contemporary voice in the business world by blending her grounding in OD with a practical approach to addressing organizational challenges and opportunities. With a Masters of Education from the University of Regina, Linda’s uniqueness is that, prior to private practice, she fulfilled corporate leadership roles including the Director of Organizational Development in a company listed on the Hewitt Top 50 Employers in Canada and became the first Manager of Strategy and Performance for a municipal government undertaking cultural transformation. Over her 20-year OD career, she has helped many leaders – from corporate executives to entrepreneurs – improve their personal and professional success. She is a sought-after facilitator, coach and advisor for executive development, strategy and change, team effectiveness, and emotional intelligence.

Linda is the lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Performance Coaching and Building Trust programs.


Join Linda and Queen’s IRC for a free webinar on July 24, 2024 from 1-2 pm ET: Unlock Your Leadership Potential: Strategies for Performance Coaching



[1] Gallup, Inc. (2024, March 22). Re-engineering Performance Management. Gallup.com. Retrieved May 31, 2024, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238064/re-engineering-performance-management.aspx

[2] Gallup, Inc. (2024, May 28). The Strengths, Weaknesses and Blind Spots of Managers. Gallup.com. Retrieved June 7, 2024, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/645299/strengths-weaknesses-blind-spots-managers.aspx.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Allen-Hardisty, L. (2024, April 3). Better Leadership: Focus on a coach approach. Industrial Relations Centre – Queens University. https://irc.queensu.ca/better-leadership-focus-on-a-coach-approach/

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