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Performance Coaching

bard-c-papegaaij's picture

Performance Coaching

By Bard C. Papegaaij on September 22, 2012

The conventional model of Performance Management puts too much emphasis on the performance indicators and not enough on the performer. It also assumes that performance is simply a matter of doing the right things: follow the formula and you will get the desired results. What it fails to acknowledge is that a) people are different - with different skills, attitudes, aptitudes, motivations, etc.; and b) outcomes are influenced by circumstances at least partly beyond the performer's control.

By shifting focus to the performer, Performance Coaching, turns the problem on its head: from "What are you (the performer) doing wrong?" to: "what can I (the coach) do to help you perform better?" It focuses on the hidden obstacles, the dynamics oi the interactions of the performer with her environment, the balance of motivation, passion, personal vs. corporate needs, etc.

Performance Coaching is an empowering discipline as well: it does not try to shoehorn performers into one-size-fits all formulas for success, but instead provides performers with tools, frameworks, and support to help them become self-managing and learn to overcome their own challenges. It assumes that when people are properly motivated they are much better at finding ways to shine than when they are simply told what to do.

First Steps (extra credit) 

The first step is to teach managers about the dangerous assumptions underlying the classical  Performance Management model: how it disempowers the performer, how it ignores drive and motivation, how it equates personal performance with corporate outcomes, how it ignores environmental factors. Managers have come to realise that people are not machines that can be fine-tuned by twiddling a few dials and tweaking some weaknesses. People are natural-born problem solvers with a great capacity and desire to tackle and overcome challenges and get great satisfaction from achieving outcomes they can relate to.

The second step is to teach managers the basics of the coaching approach: the difference between helping and coaching; the interplay between motivations, rewards, and incentives; some basic coaching skills. Not all managers will be able to make the transition, nor should they be forced to. Some people are better at managing: tracking performance indicators, calculating budgets, monitoring progress, etc. others are better at coaching. But many managers may not even realise their potential skills as performance coaches until they get exposed to this new paradigm.

In practice, performance coaching can start with as simple a question as "How can I help you achieve better outcomes?" And have an open, explorative, and collaborative discussion around the work of the performer and the many factors that influence performance. By looking at what works well and what creates challenges and tension, as well as at the performer's own assessment of her strengths and weaknesses, and how expected outcomes relate to personal motivators, the coaching manager can help the performer reassess their own performance. This assessment can then be the basis of some simple goal-setting in which both the manager and the performer take some responsibility for one particular issue, problem, or factor to work on. Don't do more than 1: go for small but clearly defined steps.

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bjarte-bogsnes's picture


Performance Coaching is one of the labels that has kept popping up during my long search for a better one. It moves the focus to leadership, away from the dumb stuff that you describe so well. I also agree with what you say about performance indicators, ref my comments to another contribution below. Your point about circumstances outside the performer's control is also important. That is why we need more holistic performance evaluations, where assessment, values and hindsight insights are key elements.



bard-c-papegaaij's picture

Hi Bjarte,

I agree wholeheartedly. What good is a performance evaluation if it only looks at the external (measurable) symptoms rather than holistically at the complex of factors that influence that performance? I believe that the mechanistic model of business is to blame for this: it tries to pretend the business is a machine and therefore logical, linear, and predictable: the same inputs will always produce the same outputs. However, modern enterprises are highly complex, adaptive, essentially human systems: non-linear, probabilistic rather than logical, and very often counter-intuitive and unpredictable. That requires a different way of 'management', new definitions of performance and of how to evaluate that performance.

michele-zanini_4's picture

Hi Bard and Bjarte, thanks for the great discussion on Performance Coaching. One company that has made some progress in shifting toward this model is Atlassian, the Australian software company. They're conducting a live management experiment by re-engineering the individual performance review process, which you can find on the MIX:

In addition to shifting the "performance" model from review to coaching, they've also introduced a few other features that could be helpful ingredients when thinking about new approaches: (1) the process is ongoing (i.e., the performance conversation doesn't only happen once a year); (2) the process is transparent; and (3) the process seriously includes self-assessment/introspection.



bard-c-papegaaij's picture

Very interesting reference Michele. As an self-elected Australian I am always looking for Australian innovation. I know Atlassian for their technical innovations but had no idea they are also leading in this area.

chris-grams's picture

One thought that would really sell the "Performance Coaching" idea for me is if it was a two-way street. So not just a manager coaching an employee, but them coaching/learning from each other, and from others in the organization as well. Breaking down the illusion that all knowledge/learning/expertise comes from the top down is one of the critical elements of any redefinition of Performance Management to me. Great thinking!

bard-c-papegaaij's picture

Hi Chris,

I couldn't agree more! One of the poisonous assumption underlying our classical management model is that the manager is always right; that somehow their elevated position provides them with an omniscience and infallibility that gives them not just the right but the divine imperative to 'correct the error of the employee's ways'. There are many reasons why this is a deadly assumption: a) in many organisations it is precisely the manager's elevated position that prevents them from knowing what is really going on - after all, why should anyone tell everything to their manager?; b) it fundamentally bars any learning the manager could get from their interactions with the employees - after all: they are all-knowing and always right, what is there to learn?; and c) it completely disempowers the employees and bars them from the experiential learning that comes from trying out different solutions and pathways to improvement - by being dictated they don't learn much either. There are more reasons along these lines. Robert Kegan in his book "How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work" gives a brilliant expose of these dangerous fallacies and assumptions when he exposes the practice of "constructive criticism" (which is so often part and parcel of performance management) for the ineffective and often damaging approach it actually is.

So, performance coaching should include that the manager's role is evaiuated by the employee in terms of how effective the manager is in helping the employee progress, overcome obstacles, develop skills and capabilities, etc. while the manager evaluates the employee in terms of commitment, willingness to learn, goal setting, etc. It should be a social contract between the two for the benefit of both.

rick-fowler_1's picture

Hi Bard,

The approach you describe is being used in many organizations and works quite well. At Kahler Leadership Group, we work with the sales, customer service, and quality functions of some of the world's largest companies to help the managers use performance coaching to improve performance. Many of the assumptions about performance and motivation that so many of us complain about are often present, but one of the most important things I have learned is that almost every manager we've worked with has been willing to try something new and change their approach.

100% of the managers who eventually decided to try coaching, practice frequently, and receive coaching on their coaching were successful in making dramatic improvements in their coaching. The business results are also astounding - increases in sales conversion rates of 40-50% within months; sales teams under goal going to 125% of goal within months, "worst" performers becoming "best" performers, reduced turnover, and many more great business results.

Of the managers who don't embrace the coaching approach, most eventually come around at least to try it. If they are open enough to receive coaching on their coaching, they succeed. Seriously, even the hardest driving, "we don't have time for this" or "if they don't perform, they're outta here" or "we're not here to be nicey-nice" kind of managers will come around IF they see that coaching helps them get better results, builds more accountability, and saves them time. And of course, good coaching does all this. Of the thousands of managers and supervisors we've worked with, perhaps 3 or 4 were unwilling and unable to make the shifts in mindset, approach, and skills. All the rest were successful and most were excited about finding a new way to help their staff do better and wanted to continue improving their coaching.

One thing I've learned is to challenge my own assumptions about the kind of people who "get it" and who won't. For those of us who are change agents, consultants, coaches, leaders, etc., we can easily be wrong about who is willing to try something new. Instead of demanding the change we want or giving up at the first sign of dissent, we should help people make changes that will help them be more successful in their own measures. We must withhold our judgments, listen deeply for understanding, and engage and support in ways that allow people to try new things, learn, adapt, and succeed.