Six Practices to Make your Feedback and Coaching More Effective at Work

There are two types of feedback that managers and executives give at work. Promotion-oriented feedback is reinforcement of what someone is doing that’s working well. Change-oriented feedback is designed to correct, adjust, and improve performance.

Promotion-oriented feedback is the act of “catching someone doing something right” and articulating that back to them. This is important. The ability to recognize small improvements is a sign that you are a good coach. You should do this regularly and consistently across all your coaching sessions.

The other type of feedback, change-oriented feedback, is something that people, especially those new to coaching at work, find harder to deliver. Everyone has been the recipient of change-oriented feedback that was ineffective or just demoralizing. That kind of change-oriented feedback gets us anxious. It can anger people. Low-quality feedback weakens the relationship over time.

But there’s a way to give change-oriented feedback to make it useful. And the good thing is, scientists have studied the act of giving feedback by athletic coaches. In my experience, the markers of high quality feedback in athletics apply to coaching in business, as well. Based on a study[1] of athletic coaches, the markers of high quality feedback include: 

  1. Empathetic manner
  2. Choices of solutions
  3. Clear and attainable objectives
  4. Avoidance of person-related statements
  5. Constructive feedback paired with tips
  6. A considerate tone of voice

So, how can you bring these qualities into your conversations and your 1-on-1 meetings? Let’s go through all six of those, one by one.

Empathetic manner. Recognize what is hard for the person, even if it is easy for you or for others. Acknowledge the effort already applied, and the progress already made—even if you or others progressed faster at one point. If you are in the same room or on a video conference, remember that your body language and posture can communicate openness, empathy and understanding—or the opposite, such as judgment, scrutiny, or skepticism. Folding your arms in front of your chest, for example, can convey that you are shut off to the person.

Choices of solutions. Present options. Protect the sense of control and freedom that your people need individually. Allow people to determine for themselves a good course of action by offering choices—not directives. Do not assume you know what is best. Allow them some breathing room to determine a course of action that feels correct and effective for their situation, skill level, etc.

Clear and attainable objectives. Know your people and their current level of skill. With that understanding, identify the next level up. Encourage them to reach higher but stay realistic. Do not assume that because you have stated an objective once, it has registered completely and clearly.

Avoidance of person-related statements. Use the right language. Focus your statements on observable, changeable behaviors and skills. Do not label the person. Do not assume laziness. Assume they have pure motives. Assume they want to do a good job at work.

Constructive feedback paired with tips. Focus their attention on things your people can control. Useful tips will make things concrete, giving examples of how others have improved or you have improved in that area. Excellent coaches remove ambiguity by providing clear and specific things for the person to try in order to improve.

A considerate tone of voice. Your tone of voice conveys a rich amount of information—much more than text alone. That is why powerful coaching is often best delivered through face-to-face meetings or private phone or video conversations. Check yourself and your emotional state before you talk. Manage your emotions, especially anger. Assume people want to do their jobs well. Assume that people want to achieve progress in meaningful work. 

Now you’ve learned the six markers of effective change-oriented feedback. But there is something else that matters besides the quality of feedback—it’s the timing of feedback. The closer you can get your feedback to the actual performance event, the better.

Last, it's extremely hard to practice all of these at once. To get started with this, pick two of these areas, such as "empathetic manner" with "clear and attainable objectives" and improve on those until you feel competent. Then move to another practice. With focus and persistence, you can become competent in all six. Then your coaching conversations will feel remarkably efficient and energizing—both for you and the person you are coaching.

Gale Stafford is a management consultant for tech companies. This is an excerpt from Gale's new book, The Talent Formula: How to Engage People, Improve Teamwork, and Elevate Performance Using the New Science of Management.


[1] Carpentier, Joëlle, and Geneviève A. Mageau. "When Change-oriented Feedback Enhances Motivation, Well-being and Performance: A Look at Autonomy-supportive Feedback in Sport." Psychology of Sport and Exercise: 423-35.

Develop and promote your humble leaders

Want a high performing organization? Identify those leaders in your organization who are humble. Develop them. And promote them.

Scientific research on leadership shows us what qualities effective leaders possess. It shows us what sort of individuals have leadership potential. It shows us what individuals are likely to derail as leaders. Scientific research on leadership can and, I believe, should be a guiding force in our work to create effective organizations. If applied correctly, those research findings will save your organization a lot of wasted time trying to develop people who are not fit to lead.

Two types of leaders: formal and informal

Your have general classes of leaders in your organization. One class is the formally appointed leader. This leader has a wide span of influence and holds a director or executive-level titles (e.g., CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, Deputy, or President) in your organization. Another class is the informal leader. This type of leader doesn’t (yet) have a formal leadership title but has a track record for effectively pulling people together to achieve goals that line up with the organization’s strategy. Regardless of what category your leader or potential leader might fall in, here are some criteria to help you identify them. In both classes of leaders, there are those with the potential to lead major improvements to your organization. Both types are important. You should try to identify both types of leaders in your organization.

Look for a combination of humility and professional will

Many of you know of Jim Collins, who studied companies that transformed themselves from good to great. Through careful study, he found an advanced type of leader who, in all the “good to great” companies, had led this major transformation across the organization. These “Level 5” leaders had two qualities: humility and professional will. Collins has extensive data to back up this finding. It explains why some people at work can lead so well and get so much accomplished with others, while other individuals at work meet so much resistance. Let’s take a minute to unpack these two qualities.

Humility is the state of being humble; “humble” is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as “not proud or haughty; not arrogant”. Let’s look at arrogance closely. An arrogant person exaggerates their own abilities while disparaging others. What you find in arrogant people is a sense of entitlement and superiority. But a sense of entitlement and superiority alone does not make someone arrogant. It is the sense of superiority coupled with putting others down–this is arrogance.

Researchers have studied workplace arrogance using quantitative data: personality measures (the Workplace Arrogance Scales) and job performance data, for example. The researchers found something many of us have observed and concluded from direct contact with very arrogant individuals at work:

“High levels of arrogance are associated with low self-esteem, low general intelligence, poor job performance, and low organizational citizenship behaviors. This suggests that arrogant individuals are not (and do not believe themselves to be) actually superior, but rather use arrogance as a way to mask inadequacies.” (Credit: “Arrogance: A Formula for Failure” by Silverman, Johnson, McConnell, and Carr)

We have hard data showing that high levels of arrogance are related to poor job performance and low general intelligence. Simply put, arrogance is a sign of someone not fit to lead.

Someone fit to lead at an advanced level is, in contrast, humble. And the qualities you find in a humble person include many specific qualities and visible behaviors not seen in arrogant people. Here are some visible indicators of humility at work:

  • seeking feedback from others
  • accurately communicates his/her own strengths and weaknesses
  • regularly giving credit to others
  • avoiding excessive praise and adulation
  • striving for personal and professional improvement

Professional will is ambition directed not for personal gain but for the betterment, the transformation and the responsible stewardship of the institution. You can spot this by looking at the results they have produced, which all revolve around the betterment of the institution rather than being self-serving to the leader. This quality is a bit easier to identify because you can study the person’s track record of accomplishments. If you interview such a person, the stories they tell will show an interest in responsible stewardship, a strong drive, and a long view. To paraphrase Jim Collins, they care about creating companies and organizations that are built to last, not built to flip.

The science tells us that humble leaders are more effective. Arrogant leaders are less effective. If you find leaders in your organization who have a drive for results and demonstrate self-awareness, effective listening, and humility, you should invest in them. To build a high performing organization, you should develop and promote your humble leaders.


Stop solving so many problems

Don't fix problems at work too quickly. Instead, let some problems sit. Here's why. If you let the problem sit, others can observe it, feel the discomfort of it, and learn from it. Then they might come up with a solution on their own without your direct aid.

Many of us step into leadership roles because we attained a status of functional or technical or expert in our role. You're good at your job. So you got promoted. Then with every problem that surfaces, you think your job is to take charge, create a solution, and then issue directives to get the problem solved.

You don't have to lead this way. You can use problems in the environment as fuel for developing people in response to the problem. Problems are opportunities for growth in the people around you. 

Stop being a hero at work. Stop being such a fixer. Stop trying to provide all the answers right away. Step in so you can involve the right people, ask them the right questions, watch them, and coach them to come up with their own answers. It's not a quick fix approach. Problems may sit longer. But watch what happens to your people. They engage. They grow. They start to thrive.

On Feedback: Sort out ignorant cynics from useful critics.

Feedback is not something most of us seek out--at least not regularly. Feedback can often be good, positive and encouraging. What stops most of us from seeking feedback is the risk of getting critical feedback. We're afraid of feeling inadequate. We hate feeling emotionally exposed. There is also the implied commitment we make when we seek feedback from others--it implies a commitment to change or improve. We are not all ready for that. Here are some other reasons we don't seek feedback. Workplaces can be toxic. People can be competitive. And people can be ignorant, small minded, and hurtful.


I've been thinking this year about how to help my team and others at work to ask for feedback from others. But that's not necessarily going to help. It is one thing to ask for the feedback and another to do something useful with it. If we help people to sort out the useful, informed feedback from personal attacks, we're a step ahead.

Scott Belsky wrote recently about the difference between criticism and cynicism. He describes cynicism as "a form of doubt resulting from ignorance and antiquated ways." It's common for creative, forward-looking people to be subjected to ridicule and personal attacks from the ignorant. This distinction between cynicism and criticism is important.

Some years ago, I was up for promotion. I found out that there was a recent meeting in which my promotion was being discussed, and my manager was pushing hard for me. He was making the case for why I should be leading this new group. Two people in the room resisted, and offered "just a little feedback" on why they thought it was not a good idea to promote me.

Sometimes people use feedback as a weapon, to limit your influence and status at work. I was not surprised to hear I had a couple self-appointed foes in that room. I had a history as a change agent who shakes things up and challenges the status quo. Ignorant, doubting and cynical people are threat-sensitive to begin with. Bring in new ideas and innovative programs, and the small-minded get even more on edge.

And in case you're wondering, I did get that promotion.

If you ask people to seek more feedback from customers and coworkers, you should also help them develop the skills to sort through feedback. To consider all opinions at work equally is a big mistake. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Reject the cynics, the ignorant and their small-minded views. Embracing informed criticism from people who have high professional standards and a work ethic.

So be careful who you ask for feedback. When you get feedback, try to sort it out and look at the credibility of the source. The best givers of feedback are impartial and are looking out for your best interest at work.

Can mindfulness improve how we work?

Back in the 90s, I learned to meditate. I was in college, getting my psychology degree at the time. Meditation caught my interest because of all the research being done on the mind-body connection. This was 20 years ago, so the mind-body research was a hot area. Meditation was being studied as a way to change certain qualities of your mind, such as cutting down on your anxiety or stress level, to see if that might affect your body's health and well-being. Researchers continue to study meditation and its affect on a person's physical health. They also study meditation's effect on our emotional and mental states such as compassion or resilience. It's a fascinating area of research.

Photo credit:  Trey Ratcliff  via  Compfight

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

Aside from improving physical health and overall well-being, meditation practice has applications to performance at work. Particularly, developing our ability to concentrate along with developing qualities of mindfulness may help us to make better decisions at work, increase our motivation to improve, work more efficiently, and also manage our relationships more effectively.

Mindfulness is a specific quality that can be developed intentionally by a person -- most often through a regular meditation practice. It basically entails: holding your attention focused on the present moment; being aware of your feelings, your thoughts and sensations without judging; observing others and their behavior, actions, etc, without judging.

The power of focus: concentration

Many meditators report that daily meditation practice improves their ability to concentrate. Anyone in any job would probably agree that a stronger ability to concentrate would help with their productivity and performance at work. Case in point: as a parent with young kids, I've seen my ability to focus at work gets weaker when one of my kids is not well. If one of my daughters is getting sick or having a problem at school, it seems like 25% of my attention is occupied for half the day with my kid's well-being. I spend my time thinking, worrying and problem solving, trying to figure out how to help them. It pulls me away from my work somewhat until I can figure out a solution.

You don't need to be a parent with young kids to have this problem of issues from home/family affecting your work. These life stressors can come from anyone close to you, such as as close friend who is struggling with health or financial problems. Or maybe you are caring for aging parents, dealing with personal financial problems, handling relationship problems with a partner or spouse, or grappling with health issues affecting your partner or spouse. We all have these stressors outside of work to deal with, and meanwhile, we have to keep getting stuff done at work. We have to maintain a professional demeanor. So, does mindfulness offer a remedy or a solution to managing the many commitments we have at both work and at home?

In Your Brain at Work, David Rock writes "Maintaining a good focus on a thought occurs not through how much you focus, but rather how you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus." And this is where developing mindfulness seems to help. Research on experienced meditators show that they have developed added neural circuitry in the pre-frontal lobes of the brain. This enhancement to your pre-frontal lobes is like having a stronger muscle that you can flex; it helps you inhibit "the wrong things from coming into focus" that Rock refers to. The experienced meditators have a neural circuitry that you could say is more efficient than non-meditators. When we have practiced states like "observing without judging" over a period of weeks, months, or years, we change our neural circuitry to become more efficient like these experienced meditators. We limit the power that distracting thoughts have.

Observing without judging

"Observing without judging" is a powerful practice. Many times our judgments about a situation, a person, or problem, are counter productive. Some situations require quick judgment and responses. However for most of us, problems at work are not too clear cut. There's a complex interplay of people and organizational politics, or team dynamics. It is often better to suspend judgment at first and simply observe, reflect, and "sit" with a problem, or with a difficult situation. "Observing without judging" can lead us to draw on intuition to arrive a solution that feels right for the circumstance we're in.

Another application of this "observing without judging" practice is in personal growth. Harvard Business Review recently reported on research showing that the key to success appears to be self-compassion, not self-esteem. To develop self-compassion, you have to get past judging yourself harshly, and you have to show kindness and understanding towards yourself. In To Succeed, Forget Self-Esteem (Harvard Business Review), Heidi Grant Halvorson writes, "When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego." Researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley) found that self-compassion increased a person's motivation to improve and avoid making the same mistake down the road.

I'm excited about these research findings showing links between mindfulness, self-compassion, and work performance. Those of us who want to make our teams and our organizations better have solid research on which to base new training and developmental programs. In particular, I'm excited about helping my people at work to coach more effectively through practicing "observing without judging."

When Google conducted a rigorous internal study on their managers, using data from multiple sources including performance reviews, they found that their best managers were effective coaches. It's clear from Breines and Chen's research that part of coaching a person must include helping the coachee to develop self-compassion, which leads them gently to a motivation to improve. Creating more effective 'coaching managers' at work is just one of many applications of the research. I can't wait to see what other findings come out of this line of research. As I develop new approaches to my work based on this research, I'll be sharing it here on this blog.

Do you receive good coaching at work? Do you provide it? What ties do you see between mindfulness, self-compassion, and effectiveness as a coach or a person being coached at work?