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Four Coaching Pitfalls to Avoid

By John Tribble

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When one of your direct reports (or even a peer) struggles with a performance issue, it affects the entire team. It can cost your business money and even give your competition the advantage. You can help by  providing thoughtful feedback and coaching. But if you don’t have the  right attitude and approach, you can cause irreparable damage to those  relationships and have the opposite effect on performance. In order to  build strong relationships and get the best out of your team, you’ll want to avoid these four common coaching pitfalls.


Pitfall Number One: Trying to act like a boss

Start with the mindset that you are the coach, not the boss. Make sure your direct report knows you want him to succeed, and that you have some valuable feedback that will allow him to course-correct before the problem becomes too large to fix. He won’t change simply because you demand it, and he won’t react positively if you use language like “you made me look bad.” Instead, he will want to know that you share his best interests and can provide a road map for how to change. 


Pitfall Number Two: Being unclear.

As a coach, your job is to point out the specific action or steps that he needs to take in order to be successful. Find out if your organization has role guides, job frameworks, or other documentation that can provide you and your direct report a playbook with mutually understandable guidelines. Even a job description is better than nothing. Many performance gaps are not due to lack of skill, but rather a lack of clear expectations. If you take responsibility for not laying out clearer expectations previously, you will create a foundation of trust with your employee.


Pitfall Number Three: Sharing opinions instead of defining the problem.

Use facts to compare and contrast your direct report’s performance against expectations (this is a good time to point back to clearly documented roles and responsibilities). Identify specific examples so that each of you are on the same page. Do not focus on the possible cause of the shortfall or anything else that is debatable. A common issue here is for employees to feel like their manager is out to get them. Your direct report will feel this way if the performance gap is purely based on opinion or if your feedback includes vague language such as “the plan needs to be more strategic.” Break down his responsibility into clear, observable, and/or measurable components, leveraging whatever role-based documentation exists.


Pitfall Number Four: Not having a game plan.

This is an opportunity that your direct report can and should embrace. It is important that they buy into the need for change and agree to a performance improvement plan. That plan should include answers to the following:

  • Objective – What is the level of performance that is required?
  • Action plan – What specifically will be completed or measured and when is the deadline? 
  • Checkpoint – When will you meet again to review progress. Start with short-term milestones (2 weeks out) and gradually lengthen the time to 30, 60, and then 90 days.

It is critical that you actively manage the plan over a long period of time. If performance meets expectations, recognize that at checkpoints or even between them, so your employee feels the momentum of being on track.


Simply demanding better performance, as if it were a manager’s right, is not enough to generate sustainable improvement. Managers that approach the conversation with a coach’s mindset, provide a playbook to clarify expectations, identify specific issues, and partner with their employees have the best chance of improving performance and building loyalty. Managers and direct reports that come through this process together forge rewarding relationships and continue learning together.

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