Start leading with a coach approach

July 17, 2019 Joe Hirsch

4-minute read


Getting feedback, especially when it's  critical, can challenge our status, elevate our stress, and compromise our relationships. And that sting isn't just limited to those on the receiving end – the aversion to feedback can also affect the managers who have to share it. Many worry about stirring up workplace drama or causing hurt feelings.

Others feel completely unprepared to deliver effective feedback due to their lack of training or people savvy. When the time comes to discuss performance issues, some managers try to disguise their feedback with a praise sandwich, talk around the issues, or simply dodge the conversation altogether.

Based on my work with leadership teams, it's clear that impactful feedback starts with a coach approach. By changing the frame used to deliver feedback – from "window gazing" to "mirror holding" – leaders at all levels can adopt a coaching mindset driven by a partnership model that's built around development and growth.

Not only does this coach approach lead to more helpful conversations about performance, but it plays to people's strengths, flows with the rhythm of work, and produces healthier relationships between managers and their teams.

Ask about what went right.

Developing a coach approach to giving feedback starts with a strong disposition towards asking questions. Rather than presume facts or prescribe solutions, leaders should aim to learn as much as they can about a situation from the employee's point of view.

Unlock the potential of your employees by asking questions that focus on their strengths and stories of success. As they reflect on these peak moments, you'll get a better sense of how they got there – and how you can partner with them to do it again. Some examples of strengths-focused questions include:

  • What brought you the most satisfaction while working on this campaign?
  • What have you learned about yourself from working on this project?
  • Did this particular task play to your strengths?

As leaders listen in, they may detect new pieces of information that change the makeup of their feedback. And for the employee, these questions provide an opportunity to retrace performance highlights and describe significant accomplishments along the way.

Make it a natural part of work.

Just like the coaches who give real-time guidance from the sidelines, leaders who adopt a coach approach match their message to the moment. They don't wait until review season rolls around to hold conversations about work. Instead, they provide just-in-time feedback that turns the very nature of work into a model for partnership.

If you manage a relatively small team, consider a 15-2-1 approach: Devote fifteen minutes every two weeks to coaching each of your employees. Scheduling time to talk about performance under relaxed conditions helps normalize feedback as something that happens routinely between managers and employees, not just when something goes terribly wrong or unexpected. If your team is too large to command this much time, consider chunking groups of employees and scheduling casual meet-ups based on project functions or team roles. The effect – weaving feedback into the rhythm of work – can be equally powerful.

Listen for ways to offer support.

Acting more like a coach can relieve managers of the prescriptive and often uncomfortable rituals of feedback – a hasty run-through of recent accomplishments, followed by a lengthier (and often limited) analysis of deficits and improvements. In its place, managers engage in thoughtful conversation with employees about their current strengths, future goals, and ways to bring those elements closer in line.

This is your chance to flip the feedback model and ask employees about how you can help them pursue their most important priorities for growth. Making this shift keeps the focus of the conversation on actionable change, but comes across in a far more supportive and non-threatening way. Some of the ways you can prompt employees for feedback include:

  • How can I help you take action on this?
  • Is there something I can do to help you achieve your goals?
  • How can I help you recreate the conditions of your success?

The best leaders don't force others to become miniature versions of themselves – they inspire us to become the grandest version of ourselves. Adopting a coach approach that's powered by partnership does just that – and allows people to set the terms for their personal and professional success.


Are you window gazing or mirror holding?

The art and science of coaching

5 effective coaching questions for managers

About the Author

Joe Hirsch

Joe Hirsch is a TEDx and keynote speaker, Inc. columnist, and author of "The Feedback Fix."

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