Employees want coaching, not criticism

Few bosses walk up to their employees and criticize them in public. But tons of employees feel criticism instead of coaching – which ends up having a dramatic impact on their engagement level. This can be fixed.

We’ve all been there

You’re sitting in a meeting – and it doesn’t really matter if it’s an internal meeting or one with clients – and the conversation shifts to the topic you were hoping to avoid. It’s a topic that makes you frustrated. And so you make a mistake. You lose your cool, or get argumentative, or just sound defensive. You know it. Everyone else knows it. And now you know you’ll be having another conversation later with your boss.

We all make mistakes. And often we know it – right after they happen. That only makes it worse because we’re then ready and waiting to hear about it from our supervisors.

Maybe you have a great boss. Maybe yours sucks. But we’ve all been there when it comes to that meeting where you’re about to get feedback.

The normal formula goes like this – casual chit chat (because most people are uncomfortable with potential conflict, which they fear when providing feedback), followed by the issue, and then the opinion on how you should have handled it.

The result? You feel even worse. Right?

Most of us in that spot have rarely come out of those meetings feeling encouraged and empowered. Instead, even if the conversation was polite, we feel criticized. More often than not, the whole feedback meeting feels pretty useless.

employees want coaching

So if we know this kind of feedback doesn’t work, why do we run the same routine when we’re the boss?

It’s easy for employees to feel criticized

It takes a lot for an employee in that situation – where they’re aware they’ve made some mistake – to not feel bad and criticized during a meeting to provide feedback. Sometimes it’s not even a mistake – it’s just something that could be improved upon.

But no matter how you slice it – we know two things:

  1. Feedback loops are critical to improved and sustained high performance
  2. Employees comes out of them feeling criticized, which can lead to less engagement

So what do we do to provide the feedback in a way that doesn’t create these dynamics?

Do you know the Socratic Method?

Wikipedia defines it as, “is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions”.

Now, don’t get fooled by the “argumentative” term. It’s not an approach that includes questions like,

  • What were you thinking?
  • Were you even thinking before you said that?
  • Do you think about the words you say before they come out?

Focus on the notion that this is a “cooperative argumentative dialogue.” It’s something done together, not in conflict with each other.

Thoughtful dialogue is the key. And the point of the conversation is to find the internal inconsistencies and assumptions that are often part of each person’s internal paradigms. By bringing them to the surface and exploring them externally, in conversation, we often find the elements that need refining.

To be clear – the conversation relies on questions that are broad, open-ended, and not simply a trick for getting your employee to agree with you. It can often be a mutual discovery of internally-held beliefs and assumptions.

A different kind of coaching

The predominant model of coaching in a work environment is modeling and explaining. It’s a “do as I do” or “copy me” approach that sometimes includes a “here’s why I did what I did” aspect to feedback.

But modeling and explaining carries with it an additional unspoken articulation that may not be helpful in coaching. It can be interpreted as:

  • There is only one right answer
  • If you don’t do it my way, you’re doing it wrong
  • Why can’t you be more like me?

None of this translates to an effective approach to feedback and none of it feels like coaching.

Yet let’s be clear – employees want coaching. They yearn for it. But they’re often getting something very different from what they need and want.

What is needed isn’t more modeling and explaining. Instead we need is a different kind of coaching that focuses more on critical thinking.


It’s a big word but it simply means thinking about your thinking. And it can become the core part of a coaching process that dramatically changes how employees receive and accept feedback.

Let’s take a simple example of an employee missing a deadline.

  • You could berate the employee, assuming your anger will motivate.
  • You could explain the importance of deadlines, assuming more facts are needed.
  • You could ask them to work all weekend, assuming natural consequences will help.

Instead let’s step into a conversation that is driven by critical thinking, uses open-ended questions, and pays homage to Socrates. You might ask different kinds of questions.

Clarifying questions

  • How did this deadline get created in the first place? What’s driving it?
  • What kinds of worries have you had about this deadline?

Assumption questions

  • What could we have assumed about this deadline as the week started?
  • How could we have verified that assumption?

Perspective questions

  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the approach you took?
  • What would an alternative approach looked like?

Implication questions

  • What generalizations can you make from this experience?
  • How does this tie in with what we’ve seen or learned before?

What you’ll notice is that there are no right answers to these questions. There aren’t specific things we’re looking for. And sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you hear and find out.

Sometimes the core of the issue is an incorrect assumption (made either by your employee or by you). Other times, as the conversation goes on, you’ll see lightbulbs go on.

Notice that what’s not happening is a declaration, from you (the supervisor), of what should have happened. This is the kind of feedback that ends up having relatively little consequence.

But the learning that comes from this new approach to feedback, based on questions instead of answers, results in a stronger kind of coaching that leaves everyone feeling more engaged. There’s an additional collaborative feeling that arrives after one of these conversations because both participants are trying to find and create a better future scenario.

Employees want coaching

The reality is that employees want coaching. But they want good coaching. Coaching that changes things. Changes their situation and changes them. They want to improve, and they want their context to improve.

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