Coaching vs. Feedback

So often “coaching” is used as a buzz term for almost any kind of interaction in the workplace (and everywhere else. Who would have thought there would be such a thing as a “knitting coach”?).

The term has been confused, misused, misunderstood and blasphemed. This is unfortunate, because coaching is a powerful skill for leaders to have  in their tool kit.

Yet, coaching is hot everywhere, and especially  in the workplace. Executive coaches are a popular choice for developing high potential employees and working with senior leaders. More to the point, many organizations consider the skill of coaching as an essential core competency for their managers. These organizations understand that coaching can foster development and learning culture.

Coaching is hard to define, because it’s a skill that borrows from teaching, psychology, consulting and other professions. But I find that in the workplace, “coaching” is most often confused with “feedback”, and “advice”. To help make the distinction, here are some differences between coaching and feedback:

Coaching is:

  • Focused on future behavior
  • Developmental
  • Inquiry oriented 
  • Used to help the better performers move ahead by releasing potential in a way that works best for the individual AND the organization

Feedback is:

  • Focused on past behavior
  • Evaluative
  • “Telling” or “Advice” oriented
  •  Often used to help poor performers change behavior in a prescribed direction in a way that works best for the organization

In the end, coaching is about “letting go” of advice-giving and assuming the person being coached is whole, smart, and understands the best direction to head in. When we give feedback, we believe that the person we are giving feedback to requires our advice to figure out the actions they need to take.

There is a time and place for feedback, as there is for coaching. But they are not the same.


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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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