Coaching: Rules of Engagement


December 24, 2009

(Originally posted in May 2009)

picture from shorespeak.comAs I wrote Part One of my coaching post (Creating A Coaching Culture), I said I feel strongly that HR professionals need to take a different approach to coaching programs. A stronger approach. The more I thought about it, it only made sense that we need some Rules of Engagement. Now, for those who do not know what Rules of Engagement entail, the phrase alone implies very strong force or action. Rules of engagement are used by the military or by police forces to describe the parameters of when, how, the duration and magnitude, location, and against what targets force can be used.

While coaching is definitely something that cannot and should not be forced, it is a topic that HR can take a strong stand on to implement better coaching strategies in a company or department. And, by creating some Rules of Engagement, we can set the parameters under which optimal coaching can occur.

HR can offer training that covers the basic rules of engagement:

When? A coach should be mindful of the time. Depending on the situation, there are certain times of the day that are more beneficial to coaching. For example, attempting to coach an employee on Friday afternoon is probably not a good idea. His mind will be elsewhere. The coach should also do all he/she can to ensure that the coaching is timely. If the employee has a known issue, the coach should talk to the employee about it. Don’t let it fester.

How? The “how” of being an effective coach could be a post in itself- an entire course for that matter. I’ll just touch on some of the things that an effective coach would do in order to build the relationship and really inspire some positive outcomes.

One important thing a coach can do is be an active listener. If a coach has his/her own agenda and is not actively listening to the employee, the relationship will not work. A coach must also be willing to give honest feedback. This is often harder than it sounds. The only way the coach can build trust with the employee is by being honest and straightforward. The coach also needs to reach out to others (sometimes discretely) to solicit feedback on the employee.

A common misconception of managers I train to coach is they think that a coach is supposed to solve the employee’s problems. This cannot be further from the truth. An optimal coach will ask the employee what he/she thinks they should do. Then, the coach can talk through pros and cons of different approaches. In the end, coaching is about teaching the employee to make good decisions, not to make the decisions for them.

Why (duration & magnitude)? You may need to convince leadership why a coaching strategy is important. It will allow them to diagnose performance problems and quickly work to correct unsatisfactory performance or behavior. It will also foster stronger workplace relationships thus improve retention. It is also an effective means to convey appreciation and improve morale.

Some coaching relationships go on for years, others last only a short time or are for a specific reason. The coach and employee can negotiate the “why” of it all together. The outcome is the important piece. The coach should be able to guide and train the employee to use techniques that will improve their performance. The coach can also serve as a role model for the employee. They may also serve as a sounding board when the employee receives their performance evaluation from the supervisor. And, can assist the supervisor in corrective action with the employee if that is needed.

Location? The most important point about location is this…it can occur almost anywhere but it needs to be somewhere that both the coach and employee feel comfortable in order for it to be optimal.

Who to coach? Coaching is a voluntary arrangement. In order to be coached, the employee has to want the relationship. It is an “at will” relationship.

I reached out to you, the readers, and you helped me come up with some of the guidelines for what optimal coaching should include in addition to the rules of engagement.

  • MANAGERS SHOULD BE TRAINED TO COACH- HumanResourcePufnStuf mentioned that it is not always easy for your top performers to coach. I agree with him. Coaches are not born, they are trained. Sure, some people have more of a knack than others at having frank and meaningful conversation, but it is a learned skill.
  • COMMUNICATION IS CRITICAL TO EFFECTIVE COACHING – Ben Eubanks (UpstartHR) brought up the point that company leadership needs to communicate with the employees. The same can be said of effective coaches. If we are not talking to each other, new ideas will not be generated and shared. Change in behavior or performance will not happen.

I believe that providing good coaching is a manager’s way to take a pre-emptive strike at poor performance. Instead of spending so much time training managers how to write performance improvement plans, my challenge is for HR to spend more time developing their coaching skills. I think April over at Pseudo HR said it best, “Coaching is preferred over corrective action.”

So what have I missed?  Are there rules of coaching engagement to be added?  What should optimal coaching include?  Add your thoughts to the comments.


  • Trish- great post- Coaching is the most important thing a first line manager can do. What I would add to your post is not all are equal in terms of who gets your coaching time and focus. Your Hi-performers need support and a great trust relationship with you- (think- retention) , Your low performers need performance management (not coaching), The best results for the company come form the focus on the core of the team- the middle group- those that you can move toward higher performance or performance manage out. This is the group where managers should spend the majority of their time coaching for the highest productivity results.

    • @Debbie- Excellent point. I knew my smart readers would come through for me to help build a better list. : )

  • Trish-
    This is a good post that gets me thinking about the difference between coaching and mentoring. I agree with Debbie in that coaching is the most important skill and function of a 1st level manager (with acquisition and retention of talent a very close 2nd). I also find myself disagreeing with you that the coaching function should be, or is voluntary. Using team sports as an example, every team has a coach. It is a position of leadership, responsibility, and accountability. Following the directives and instructions of the coach is not voluntary, neither is the fundamental recognition of the position and relationship. In the business context, I view coaching as compulsory and mentoring as voluntary. Thoughts?

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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