How to Coach an Employee for Performance Improvement

Many managers often ask how to coach an employee for performance improvement and so, in this article we’ll discuss when it applies and how to do it effectively.

Here’s the quick answer:

How to coach an employee for performance improvement? 

  1. Identify the problem or gap to planned performance;
  2. Discuss the problem objectively, using fact and not opinions;
  3. During the discussion, identify any limitations that are preventing them from achieving the plan;
  4. Discuss possible solutions, openly;
  5. Create an agreed action plan together;
  6. Support them as they work the plan by checking in regularly at agreed frequencies, to ensure progress is being made.

Naturally, there are a few reasons to coach an employee for performance improvement, They are:

  • The employee is not performing to standard;
  • The employee can be coached further to develop in their role, beyond the current standard of work.

Coach When the Employee is Not Performing

Unfortunately, sometimes, you’ll have to engage in tough situations and conversations with your staff. One of which is to address and coach performance gaps between the level an employee should be at, and where they currently are underperforming.

The term coaching means not to go steaming in, telling them that they are no good. This only acts to make matters worse.

Instead, coaching allows you to tease out improvements, based on supporting them through the process, whilst building rapport and an understanding.

From a legal perspective, particularly in the UK and Europe, it’s the law to coach underperforming employees and to give them the opportunity to improve to the required standard. In other words, it’s not morally good practice to just dismiss someone without any support offered. It could also land you in legal hot water, too.

Coaching an Employee to Develop

In a more positive light, coaching an employee to develop beyond their current level is another route for coaching. It means that you’re guiding them to be the best they can be.

In this instance, the coaching process is largely the same as the above, but with one major difference.

If you’re coaching to improve an under performer, you’ll be addressing their performance gap, identifying why it’s the case and then agreeing actions to take to overcome this hump.

In comparison, if you’re coaching to improve a person’s skill set to the next level, you discuss the current gap to the new future level of performance, and how to get there.

How to Coach an Employee for Performance Improvement (When Underperforming)

Here’s how to get your employee back on track, quickly and effectively.

Identify the Problem or Gap to Planned Performance

The trick here is not to enforce your opinions, but merely discuss the facts and what you observe. Never lead discussions with, “I think…” It’s not your job to create an opinion – it is your job to identify the observable gap to plan.

For instance, if John is consistently late to work, then the problem can be split into the following statement, “Over the last month, you’ve been absent for 14 days.” 

This is speaking in a matter of fact way and keeping emotions aside.

Avoid, too, the temptation to discuss why you think the problem is happening. Just stick to defining the problem.

Discuss the Problem Openly

Don’t avoid discussing the problem, no matter how hard it may seem to do. As a leader, you’re expected to have awkward conversations at times.

When you discuss, understand that it’s not a disciplinary meeting. Think of it as a way of getting to the bottom of why the person is not performing to standard. Ask questions to help drill down and work together on identifying issues.

Listen to what they have to say and avoid judging. Drill down by thinking of root causes to problems – these are the real reasons why they are struggling. Things to say, could be:

  • “That’s interesting, tell me more about….”
  • “It’s interesting you say that. What made you feel that way?”
  • “How did you come up with that?”
  • “Explain more about…”

Try to ask open questions, so the person doesn’t feel pushed down a road they don’t want to go. Your role is to challenge and uncover things, not to be the juror and executioner.

Look for things that are physically preventing them from achieving what you want them to achieve. And keep asking questions until you both feel you’ve got there.

Discuss Solutions to Help Bridge the Gap

There are three subsections to agree at this stage:

Define the goal

Answer what specifically is it you want them to achieve? Be clear as to what you both agree success looks like. For instance, make it unambiguous, like: 100% attendance over the next 30 days.

Action Plan

During the discussion, you’ll need to agree and confirm the solutions to the discussion of why there’s a gap to plan. This should be thrashed out openly.

Think of many ideas and then discuss the actions that will ensure you achieve the goal. Don’t try to create a large list – stick to a few key things – perhaps no more than 5 or so.

Write them down and agree them together in writing.


You now need to agree how often you’ll get together to check in on how things are going. The frequency of reviews should be clear for both parties to agree on.

Remember, coaching means that you’re supporting them and helping them overcome problems – not reviewing to try to catch them out.

Work the Plan and Check in Regularly

Now, its down to your employee to follow the plan, and for you to help coach them through it. Ensure that your reviews happen without fail. Never fail to catch up because you’re busy workload stops you from doing it.

During the review, agree the actions and what has been achieved.

  • Establish what’s working;
  • Agree what could be improved;
  • Then adjust the plan or actions if need be;
  • Agree the next actions and milestones to get completed, prior to the next review.

This process of checking and reviewing is a classic way to coach teams through their skills development. We’ve written an article on how to do this in depth, using the Situational Leadership Model.

How to Coach an Employee for Performance Improvement for Skills Development

The process above is largely the same, with some subtle adjustments.

Discuss the New Goal

Instead of discussing the problem openly, you’ll discuss the target and then work backwards to see how you get there.

For instance, “I want you to manage this entire project from start to finish.” Or, “Id; like you to run the department in my absence” Or even, “We’ve highlighted you to work at divisional level…”

Once you’ve defined the goal, it’s then a case of discussing how to get there…

Discuss the Current Limitations or Gaps

Instead of discussing the problem, you’ll largely be discussing what things need to be addressed to achieve the target.

These can be skills gaps, training needs, further coaching needed, mentoring, or anything else that you both agree define as gaps to be addressed.

For instance, let’s suppose Sarah agrees to stand in for the Manager when away. Some gaps highlighted, could be:

  • She has a lack of experience and confidence in talking to large groups and addressing the team;
  • She currently doesn’t know how to complete the KPI reports each week;
  • She is unfamiliar with the resource planning process.

Agree the Training and Learning Steps

It’s now time to agree how these gaps will be bridged over the next weeks or months.

Simply ask how each one can be overcome. By doing this, you’ll be able to agree the most impactful action steps to get over the line.

Think about elements like:

  • Coaching – can you coach them through some of the skills development?
  • Can you create a procedure or work instruction to help them follow a particular task?
  • Is there formal training they can go on to get professional level skills?
  • What about mentoring? Is there someone that can mentor them through it?

We’ve written an article around the 70 20 10 model of learning, to help you define effective training programmes. This may help, too.

When you are clear on how to develop the employee’s skills, agree the following in summary:

  • The new goal;
  • The action plan – What things need to be learned or developed in order to get there;
  • Reviews – Agree how often you’ll review their progress and when.

Work the Plan and Check In

Now follow the plan. Your job is to coach and support that person through their development plan. Offer support and guidance when they need it.

Work with them to help overcome obstacles and review their milestones.

Again, during each review, check what worked, what didn’t and what can be improved. Encourage learning and reflection. Don’t try to give answers all the time. Coaching is about reflection and letting the recipient identify areas to improve and what to do next. Your job is to ask questions so they can learn and development, based on reflection.

Note: when coaching for improving performance, in order to set goals and agree actions, you could follow the simple one minute goal setting process in the One Minute Manager article we’ve created.

The Bottom Line

Coaching employees to improve is a very powerful way to develop skills and capabilities in your team. With underperforming team members, it’s an excellent way to get them back on track without necessarily having to read the riot act.

By developing your coaching skills, you’ll soon find that it becomes a very natural part of the way you lead.