Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

2008 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 13, No. 2
March 2008

Improving Employee Performance through Coaching

When you hear the word “coach,” a face may come to mind. It might be the coach you had in school, UNC’s Dean Smith, or some other coaching icon. Regardless of who you picture, the feelings and thoughts you connect with the word “coach” will probably be positive. Why? Because coaches—the good ones, anyhow—inspire us to set goals and develop the skills to achieve them. They help us succeed by living up to our potential.

Supervisors as Coaches
Coaching is not confined to the world of sports. In child welfare, supervisors, managers, and directors use coaching to enhance employee motivation, morale, and performance. Additional benefits of coaching for the supervisor, work unit, and agency can include a more stable work force (reduced turnover) and better outcomes for families and children.

In contrast to traditional supervisory approaches, in the coaching role the supervisor is not directive. Rather, when supervisors act as coaches they encourage individuals to determine what needs to be addressed and inspire them to take responsibility for their own professional development (Salus, 2004).

The Connection to MRS

It is important to note the link between effective coaching and the principles and practices used in North Carolina’s Multiple Response System (MRS). For example:

  • Supervisors who are good coaches know that workers respond better to support and positive reinforcement than to punitive pressure or control.
  • Successful coaches help workers identify goals and solutions themselves, rather than simply handing down directives and step-by-step instructions.
  • Coaching can require more time on the front end, when supervisors take the time to explore problems and brainstorm possible solutions. Yet once that investment is made, workers will be better prepared to act independently and thoughtfully.

In each of these examples, the parallel with the strengths-based, family-centered philosophy and strategies we have embraced as a child welfare system is clear.

Coaching Is a Process
Coaching is an interactive process of observation and reflection. In this process the coach encourages self-observation, self-correction, and an ongoing refinement of the learner’s knowledge and skills (Flaherty, 1999; Kinlaw, 1999). The coaching process itself consists of a series of one-on-one conversations. These can occur during informal work progress discussions, formal performance reviews, and at appropriate times throughout the work day (“coachable moments”).

Russ and colleagues (2003) suggest the coaching process consists of phases, as the box describes below. Note that the coaching process is not necessarily a linear one—the order in which the phases occur is influenced by the situation at hand.

Phases of the Coaching Process

Coach focuses on worker’s goals by helping the worker define the coaching relationship, clarify desired outcomes, identify strategies for improvement, and identify measures of progress. Examples of questions to use include:

  • What would help you . . . ?
  • What have you thought about doing (or tried)?
  • How will you know you are improving?

Observation and Action
Coach and worker gather data about the worker’s practice. Worker may do this through self-observation. Coach may do this via first hand observation, progress reports, interviews, demonstration, guided practice, modeling, etc.

Coach enhances worker’s perceptions and actions by helping the worker summarize impressions of the worker’s progress, compare anticipated and actual results, and apply new information. Questions to ask include:

  • What happened when you . . .?
  • What did you do to influence what happened? How is this different?
  • What changes would you make, if any, next time?
  • What have you learned from this process?

Coach reviews the effectiveness of the coaching sessions, either alone or with the worker, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the sessions, analyzing the effectiveness of the coaching relationship, and determining whether progress is being made to achieve intended outcomes. Based on conclusions, decide whether to continue the coaching process. Questions to ask include:

  • Do I need to make changes in the coaching process?
  • Am I helping the worker achieve the intended outcomes?
  • Should I continue as the coach, or is there someone else in the unit/agency with the specialized experience/skills to coach the worker at this time?

Adapted from Russ, et al., 2003

Skills for Coaching Success
Most successful coaches rely on a mix of skills familiar to social work supervisors, including:

  • Active listening—which includes attentiveness, clarifying, reflecting, synthesizing, giving feedback, and summarizing
  • Questioning—good coaches ask questions that are open, positive, nonthreatening, and thought-provoking
  • Finding strengths and giving praise/recognition
  • Assuming an objective, nonjudgmental stance

Of course, being nonjudgemental does not mean supervisors always agree with workers. At times it will be important to challenge workers or offer constructive feedback. When giving feedback, be constructive and positive. Remember the BOOST model, which holds that feedback should be:

  • Balanced. Focus on strengths as well as on what needs improvement.
  • Observed. Provide feedback based only on behaviors you have observed.
  • Objective. Focusing on facts reduces blame and defensive reactions and encourages cooperation.
  • Specific. Back up your comments with specific examples of observed behavior.
  • Timely. Give feedback soon after the activity. This gives the person a chance to reflect on what he or she has learned.

(Source: NHS, n.d.)

Coaching for Improved Performance

In her Supervising Child Protective Services Caseworkers, Salus (2004) offers these suggestions for supervisors using coaching to improve employee performance:

Be supportive. State in clear language your understanding of the worker’s situation. Include the nature of the problem, your current understanding of the worker’s feelings about the problem, your objectives, and your desire to support the worker as he or she resolves the problem. Make it clear that this is a problem-solving process, not a disciplinary process. Being supportive does not require accepting the worker’s explanation of the problem or explanations of why it cannot be solved.

Develop an understanding of what is happening. Use active listening to make sure you understand the problem from the worker’s perspective. You may need to ask clarifying questions to understand the cause of behaviors, reactions, or emotions. At the same time, help the workers understand how their contributions to the problem affect the child, family, agency, etc.

Help the worker evaluate how her current performance and behavior are affecting her goals. This helps develop the worker’s interest in change. For example, a worker may be neglecting documentation in favor of “giving more direct time to clients through personal contacts.” The worker’s goals are focused on the client. However, the worker also needs to understand the benefits of paperwork to clients, as well as the consequences of incomplete paperwork. In the worker’s absence, a decision may need to be made based solely or primarily on information available in the family's record. If records are incomplete, a decision may be made that may be contrary to the best interest of a child or parent.

Create a clear, specific, and feasible plan for change. Once the underlying needs are determined, engage the worker in developing goals and future actions. This step involves developing a contract between yourself and the worker that defines clearly what you each want and are willing to offer. Like plans for parents and children, performance improvement plans must have concrete steps and behaviorally defined goals.

Follow up. Second only to inaccurate assessment of the performance problem, failure to follow up is the most frequent reason difficulties in performance persist. To get the worker to enhance his or her performance you must also change some part of your current behavior. Although most supervisors intend to follow-up, many become busy with other priorities. Some avoid follow-up because they do not want to confront the lack of improvement. If improvement is evident, some may assume that no follow-up is needed because the problem apparently is solved. Following up conveys to the unit that the supervisor cares about results.

Provide feedback. Sustaining changes in performance requires supervisory encouragement and positive feedback. Therefore, provide both evaluative and developmental feedback on an ongoing basis to sustain the improvements in the worker’s performance.

Adapted from Salus, 2004

How Effective Are You?
Curious about the effectiveness of the coaching you do? Go to <> to find a self-assessment that will help you understand your strengths and a template for an action plan for improving in the areas where you need it.

References for this and other articles in this issue