Whether they're a six-year-old playing softball or an Olympic medalist footballer, athletes can agree upon the fact that coaches can mean the difference between a shutout game and an undefeated season.

Coaches can teach athletes new skills, help them think about how to beat the competition, and can rally and focus the team to keep playing -- win, lose, or draw.

The same can be said for employee coaches. They help employees think through challenges, set and achieve goals, and work on self-improvement. And although the workplace has significantly fewer trophies than a soccer league, coaches still play a critical role in individuals and teams achieving greatness.

Coaching is a valuable asset to skill-building and goal-setting if you want to improve -- whether you're an athlete or an employee. In this post, we'll discuss helpful tools and best practices for managers who are holding coaching conversations with employees -- and why it's so important, to you and to them.

Managers often take on the role of coaches, but that is not always necessarily the case, as employees can also seek out peers, mentors, and leadership coaches for these conversations. Manager coaching goes beyond the day-to-day minutiae of an employee's role and responsibilities and, instead, can cover topics like career path and development, leadership acumen, developing and strengthening proficiencies, and evaluates employee growth in a holistic, long-term sense.

It's worth noting that, while manager coaches can compel employees to action, coaching isn't about managers telling employees what to do. Instead, it's about listening to employee concerns and goals and providing support, guidance, and resources, at which the employee can decide to act upon or not.

Keep reading to learn our best practices and tips for effective employee coaching.

1. Make giving feedback a regular part of your workflow.

Coaching conversations with your employees will be far more productive if you've already built a foundation of sharing helpful feedback with one another. If you hold regular 1:1s with your employees on a regular basis, don't be afraid to give them constructive feedback as it comes up -- and encourage them to do the same with you. That way, you'll build an environment wherein you and your employee are both comfortable giving and receiving feedback so the subsequent coaching conversations you share are open and inhibited by less social discomfort or defensiveness to ensure optimal productivity and listening.

2. Encourage preparation and interactivity.

Coaching conversations are a critical opportunity to make sure you and your employee are on the same page about their progress and their room to grow. The best way to make sure coaching starts on the same page is to set it up as an interactive conversation from the get-go. You can use an employee coaching form like the ones we've shared below to guide the discussion, or you can simply set an agenda in the meeting event on each other's calendars. Make sure your employee and you dedicate time to thinking about and documenting what you want to get out of coaching so your conversation has a structure and jumping-off point.

3. Check your emotions at the door.

Coaching conversations can be emotional for the person being coached. Think about it -- it's an intensive period of time where they're receiving tons of constructive feedback about their performance, their strengths and weaknesses, and feelings or defensiveness may manifest in your employees. Other times, they might feel frustrated or unhappy with their current role or career progression going into the conversations, so emotions might come up in conversations focused solely on those topics.

That's why it's so important that you get the support you need in advance of these conversations and afterward so you're able to best support and coach them. You're only human, and it's natural to feel emotional or uncertain about delivering critical performance feedback to people you work closely with. But the key is to acknowledge your own growth areas (perhaps by getting coaching of your own) so you're able to manage your emotions during the conversation with your employee so your reactions don't create confusion or lessen the impact of your feedback.

4. Help them understand their blind spots.

Sometimes it's hard to get a fresh perspective on your own work because, well, you're in it. When your employees are in the trenches every day, it can be tough for them to take a step back to tackle challenges in different ways. That's where you come in.

During employee coaching conversations, use the information you have to try to help employees identify and understand their own blind spots that prevent them from working more effectively. Offer them different perspectives on challenges and new mental models of thinking about their work they might not know already. Use your fresh eyes to identify inefficiencies in their workflow that could be slowing them down, tasks or projects they can delegate, or ideas you might have to work on higher-impact initiatives.

No matter what form the feedback takes, part of your job as a manager is to help your employees see the bigger picture while they're focused on their daily tasks. Make sure your coaching conversations teach them how to do this for themselves, too.

5. Push them to greater challenges.

Always use coaching conversations as an opportunity to present and assign them with new challenges.

As you might have experienced over the course of your own career progress, sometimes challenging employees with new responsibilities and projects pushes them to another level of productivity and leadership.

New challenges can also re-ignite excitement if your employee's daily work has become rote or stagnant.

And sometimes, if an employee is underperforming, an additional challenge -- and not easing up on them -- is the key to pushing them to exceed expectations and bolstering their confidence at work.

Whatever the employee's performance is, going into coaching conversations, be prepared to serve as a challenger -- of their perceptions, their ideas, and their workload -- to push them to think and work more like a leader.

6. Align with what motivates them.

Keeping employees motivated is a key part of your job as a team manager -- and tapping into what you know motivates your employees during coaching conversations can help you get your message across most effectively.

If you know your employee is intrinsically motivated, remind them of that. Urge them to tap into their personal sense of accomplishment, or love of learning, or interest in teaching or coaching, to encourage them to take on more responsibility, or to help them muster up the attitude to tackle a difficult project.

If you know your employee is extrinsically motivated, remind them of that, too. Although you should use rewards sparingly in coaching conversations, encouraging your employee about the downstream effects on their career can be an effective way to get them excited about taking on more challenges, or focusing on highest-impact work.

Your job as a manager is to help your employees do their best work by tapping into how they work most effectively. We all need motivation to do our jobs -- that's why we get paid to do them instead of volunteering. There's nothing wrong with tapping into those needs and priorities to get them moving.

7. Document an action plan.

No matter where the coaching conversation takes you, make sure you and your employee are documenting your shared agreements and plans somewhere you can both refer to. This will help the employee stay focused and prioritize during the months to come, and the documentation will help you both stay accountable. It will especially help you track and measure your employee's growth, as well as your own advocacy and support on their behalf.

Whether this document is reported to your company's learning and development or human resources departments or it's kept between the two of you, it will provide a blueprint to work off for future conversations about growth.

8. Don't let them off the hook.

As your working relationship progresses, it's your job as a manager to hold your employees accountable to those shared agreements and areas of improvement you've discussed in coaching sessions. Those conversations can be tough (refer back to "checking your emotions at the door"), but you're not doing your team any favors by not checking in on their progress or not letting them know when they've come up short.

If you have feedback you need to deliver to your employees about their professional development, do some preparation in advance of delivering that feedback. Make your assessment as objective as possible so your employee knows you're critiquing a specific behavior and don't take your feedback personally. Deliver the feedback in the mode that works best for them (in person, via email, or both), and ask them if they understand what you're saying. Then, once you're both on the same page (again), you can start the process from the beginning and keep iterating on their goals.

9. Support employees, don't micromanage them.

It's important for you as a manager to recognize that, while your employees' success does reflect on you as your success too, ultimately, career growth and development is something only the individual employee can control. Coaching is where you can support them, but it's important to remember not to over-coach them by becoming a micromanager.

Emily MacIntyre, a Team Development Manager at HubSpot, says it's important to "recognize that the individual is responsible for their own career, since that person is in the best position to understand their own unique goals and aspirations. The manager or can provide guidance and support.

A coach's role is to move an employee to action while offering support and honesty," she explains, but it's up to the employee to decide what to do with the feedback and support they receive and to then take action.

Employee Coaching Form Templates

Here are a couple of different forms you can use to facilitate your employee coaching conversations. As your coaching relationship progresses, you may need these documents less and less, but it's always helpful to keep track of progress made and areas employees can continue developing to hold you both accountable to what you discuss.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis evaluates strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It can be used at any level to take stock of what's going well, what needs to improve, and what to think about for the future, and it can serve as a helpful guide to a coaching conversation. If both you and your employee fill out a SWOT analysis prior to meeting, you can both discuss and compare notes to jump-start the conversation.

Here's a template you can start using.

Start, Stop, Continue Retrospective

The Start, Stop, Continue Retrospective evaluates what it sounds like it does -- what individuals or teams should start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in order to achieve goals. This could be a good running document to maintain over the course of various coaching conversations.

Here's a template you can start using.

Action Plan

Action plans detail the steps needed in order to achieve a certain result or goal. This document will be helpful if your coaching conversations center around a specific goal your employee has -- such as getting promoted, or becoming a people manager.

Here's a template you can start using.

Employee coaching is an important part of any manager's job. It's critical to the development of the individual employees on your team, but additionally, the way you coach individuals will determine how the team as a whole is performing. Managers can play a huge role in employees' sense of motivation, accomplishment, and career development, and coaching is one of the many manager skills in your toolbelt that allow critical feedback to be heard, processed, and acted on.

To learn more, read our list of quick team-building exercises to try next.

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Originally published Oct 10, 2018 8:00:00 AM, updated October 10 2018