Coaching Versus Feedback: When to Use Which


Managers often exhibit a common cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge. When communicating with their team, they unknowingly assume that the other person knows what they are talking about. 

Take this situation, for example: a sales rep wraps up a call that his manager was monitoring. As soon as he hangs up, the manager walks up to him and says: “You did pretty well! But it would have been better if you had built more of a rapport to start the conversation.”

The manager walks away thinking he offered some valuable insights to improve their performance. But for the sales rep - it was of little use. He knows that he did something wrong but isn’t sure what to do about it. So he’ll keep repeating the mistake and the manager will be irritated and feel that his employees don’t heed his advice: a lose-lose. 

This is a problem that persists in every enterprise at one level or the other. You might be inclined to call it a communication gap (which is partially true), but the deeper problem here is misalignment between the problems and offered solutions. What the above example demonstrates is that managers consistently treat feedback and coaching as one-in-the-same, which is quite problematic because they are not! 

But before we get any further, let’s take a look at the standard definition of both terms to ensure we are on the same page here: 

Feedback: Information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.

Coaching: To train or instruct with the aim of improving performance. 

The definitions themselves draw a clear boundary between the methods and objectives of both terms. 

Method: Feedback is information while coaching is a process. 

Objective: Aimed at improving performance. 

It is this common objective of feedback and coaching that causes many managers to confuse the two. But as you might expect, that isn’t all. Here are a few more subtle differences that managers must take into account while interacting with their employees: 

Feedback is Descriptive. Coaching is Prescriptive. 

Feedback, at its core, is describing the actions of employees with a tone of judgment. It can be positive or negative and mainly concerns itself with what worked and what didn’t. 

Coaching, by definition, builds on the feedback. If the feedback is very good, there may not be a need for coaching. But if the feedback is negative, coaching is a tool to address the shortcomings. 

If the feedback is “you were nervous on the call”, the coaching will include “how to be more confident while talking to prospects.” To take our previous example, the manager there provided feedback - that rapport was missing, but didn’t provide any coaching to overcome that shortcoming. 

Feedback is Past. Coaching is Future.

A clear inference from the previous point follows that feedback is concerned with past actions. It can be for a call concluded seconds ago, for the past week, or the previous quarter. 

Coaching, on the contrary, is concerned with the future. How you should take your next call? What techniques you should implement in the coming weeks or quarter? You get the picture. 

There is an emerging process of proactive coaching where managers identify and coach employees before they mess up a quarter. You can read more about it here

Overall, while feedback and coaching are both essential for employee performance management, they should be applied accordingly where needed. If not, they can do more damage than benefit. So the next time you see an underperforming employee, ask yourself: do they need feedback or coaching? 

To learn more about how you can accurately measure their performance, click here

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