Talking Shop: Coach your tech staff by providing meaningful feedback

Help the professional development of IT staff with effective coaching

The idea of a coach in the business world differs slightly from one organization to another. But most forward-thinking organizations recognize the critical need to develop their people and understand that coaches are an essential part of that development.

If you're a new IT manager, the idea of coaching a former colleague can be intimidating. Perhaps the scariest part is providing feedback about the staffer's performance. Yet it's your job to help your staff members improve. The key is to provide feedback that's useful and applicable to the employee. Let's explore the idea of coaching employees and the characteristics of good feedback.

What is a coach?
Coaching is the act of encouraging, redirecting, and listening to an individual to sustain current performance, to encourage new or better behaviors, or to develop staff members for their next role. Traditionally, coaches have been the direct supervisor of the person being coached—the "coachee." But many organizations are now adopting a broader view, where coaches and coachees cross hierarchical and departmental boundaries.

The standard role of a coach's is to be a trusted mentor with whom the coachee has developed a good relationship. Trust is the cornerstone of an effective coaching strategy because it allows the feedback to be more readily accepted.

Developing trust
If you'd like more information about developing trustworthy relationships with employees, learn about the four traits you must demonstrate as described by management expert Steven Watson.

A coach's main tool for effecting change is feedback. By communicating what he or she sees in the employee, the coach can provide both positive and negative reinforcement. Said another way, the coach is a mirror that reflects the employee's performance.

Coachees must find the feedback acceptable so that they will try to integrate it into their daily routine. So to create an accurate reflection—and one that the employee will have faith in—feedback must be all of the following:
  • Timely
  • Specific
  • Purposeful
  • Credible
  • Behavior-based

Let's look at each of these key characteristics of quality feedback more closely.

One of my favorite sayings is that "If I don't know it's broke, I can't fix it." The corollary to this is that if something is broken, it will only get worse. Employees won't change their approach to something unless they know there's something about the way they're handling it that isn't optimal.

Therefore, good feedback is timely. It occurs as soon as it's practical after the interaction, completion of the deliverable, or observation is made. In some cases, this may mean interrupting the current activity, but more often it means that you find a private place as soon as possible.

Dozens of times, when in front of a customer, I've needed to provide some feedback to a support person working with me. Instead of making the correction right there in front of the customer, I deflected the conversation or situation and then, while walking back to our office area, I shared some of the things about the interaction that could have been better.

Another tenet of good feedback is that it must be specific so that the person you're communicating with can understand the exact problem that the feedback addresses. Nonspecific feedback might sound like, "You didn't take care of Mary very well." Specific feedback might be, "Mary really needed to be listened to in addition to solving her problem. You didn't spend much time listening to her talk about her problem." The more feedback you present on specifics, the better the recipient can resolve the problem. And the more timely the feedback, the easier it will be to be specific.

If you can't determine what's wrong or what behavior you want to encourage, you won't be able to get it. As Steven Covey said in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind." That means that you'll need to be able to identify the exact behavior you want to encourage.

Saying, "Get better at dealing with people" won't cut it. You have to say something that indicates the desired outcome, such as, "We need to make the customers feel like we care about them. We can do that by listening more." The latter definitely conveys the goal you have in mind. Although it's possible that the feedback could be more specific in terms of the exact actions that are missing, coachees can always ask for that level of detail if they are not sure what additional actions they should take to improve their performance.

One important part of making the feedback acceptable and applicable to the coachee is its credibility. Credible feedback is always based in direct evidence. It can't be just something you heard from another party, although you can use such information if you directly verify it.

The feedback must also be honest. You can't expect an employee to accept feedback that you yourself don't agree with. We've all been in situations where a company policy says one thing, but we all do something different. If you're asked to confront your coachee—or if you choose to deliver feedback about the policy—you won't get anywhere. The coachee will quickly and clearly see the difference between the feedback you're giving and your personal opinions or actions.

Another component that creates credible feedback is privacy. Feedback won't be perceived as credible if it's delivered in front of a large group of people. Instead, it will be viewed as an attack and will only put the coachee in a defensive position.

Feedback is necessarily personal. You're telling employees that part of them or their behavior is incorrect, subpar, or unacceptable. So the final key to delivering acceptable feedback is to make sure that it's focused on the behavior or deliverable and not the person, his or her personality, or who he or she is.

Bad feedback might sound something like this: "You never pay attention. You don't seem to care." Good behavioral-based feedback might be, "Listening to a customer requires looking them in the eyes and periodically acknowledging what they are saying. You may want to practice this so that your interactions with our customers are smoother."

There is no way to completely avoid the automatic association between a missed expectation or a need for a different behavior and the person who created the deliverable in the first place. However, the goal is to make sure that the person feels like they are still a good person.

Prepare to be uncomfortable
The greatest challenge for the coach is typically the uncomfortable feeling that everyone has when providing negative feedback. As caring individuals, we don't want to hurt the feelings of others or make them feel bad. As a result, we don't ever want to give people negative feedback.

The problem with this thinking is twofold: First, most individuals crave feedback, particularly the kind of feedback we've been describing here. If asked, nearly everyone wants to know how to improve themselves and meet the expectations of their peers.

Second, small performance problems or situations where expectations are missed will grow into bigger problems if not addressed. A small issue with one report can turn into a pattern of failing to meet expectations. Those patterns can lead to the need to fire individuals. If you ever have the misfortune of having to fire someone, you'll realize that providing negative feedback is a lot less uncomfortable than letting someone go.

Reap the rewards
With all of the effort that must go into learning how to be an effective coach—like learning to give effective feedback—it may seem strange that anyone might want to coach another individual. There are, however, a substantial number of personal and professional reasons for focusing on coaching. For most people, the greatest personal reward is helping other individuals reach their potential. Seeing someone you've coached succeed is a heartwarming experience that cannot be overstated.

From a business perspective, coaching increases your potential to be promoted. By developing the individuals you work with through coaching, you can allow them to be successful, even in your absence. They don't need you to continue to check up on them because they've learned what is expected and how to deliver it based on your feedback.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox