The Importance of Asking Questions to Coach Employees

managers resource handbook


Coaching Through Questions







EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to down our 8-page Coaching Through Questions Guideline and Managers Coaching Worksheet template from the Tools and Templates page!

As managers, one of our primary responsibilities is to mentor and coach employees. Granted, a lot of mentoring and coaching takes place in short spurts by the water cooler, or during informal meetings and hallway encounters. However, there are times when a specific conversation with an employee is warranted. Examples include times when you’re trying to get even more from a high performer, or when you have observed a specific need for development of a given employee. When such as scenario occurs, deliberate coaching is necessary to enhance the employee’s skills, as well as to address or correct areas of concern.

A Sound Coaching Method

Many managers see coaching as simply offering quick solutions or immediate answers to an employee when he or she encounters a challenge. There are certainly times where a quick point in the right direction are all that is needed, but when it comes to teaching the employee to be resourceful or to help him or her think through a more complex challenge, providing an immediate answer is usually not the best thing to do.
RELATED:  Tips for Writing Employee Performance Evaluations

While you and the employee might be able to save time if you, as their manager, offer outright a way forward, here are some negative impacts of telling the employee what to do:

  • When given an answer, employees are not forced to think for themselves
  • When offered a solution or direction, the employee is less accountable for his or her actions
  • When handed a way forward, the employee is likely to run into the problem again

Alternatively, instead of simply telling an employee what to do, when a manager uses probing questions as part of interacting with an employee, it can help the employee pass through barriers to their own thinking. Further, use of probing questions can teach employees how to improve their skills through self-reflection. When employees are afforded the opportunity to develop their own solutions, it maximizes their awareness of a situation or problem, and helps them better envision how changes and actions can help them improve. Probing questions will also encourage employees to take ownership in the future.

Example # 1

Telling: “Go talk to Jane. She will be able to give you the answer you are looking for.”

Probing Question: “Who might be able to help assist you in getting that information?”


Example # 2

Telling: “I would set up a meeting with Bob to share your data and get his opinion.”

Probing Question: “How might you be able to get an expert opinion on what the data is telling you?”


Example # 3

Telling: “There are three different ways you can do this, but the best approach would be to send the customer the report now, and revise it later with the updated test results.”

Probing Question: “What options do you foresee?”


Outside of day to day mentoring and teaching, there are three primary situations when deliberate coaching can help managers drive positive change within his or her teams:

Please Take A Moment to Answer This Question in Support of Our Management Research!


What was your biggest fear when you became a leader of people?
  • Delivering performance feedback to employees
  • Not being accepted by the team
  • Feeling like you needed to be the expert
  • Dealing with performance issues
  • Increasing workload and hours
  • Other

Coaching for High Performers:

Coaching high performers can be difficult because they are already very effective, successful and capable. This is often the most difficult situation to coach because many managers are often left wondering “How do I provide feedback when they are already doing all the right things?”

Coaching high performers should center on:

  • Anticipating new challenges and providing guidance on new tasks or assignments
  • Providing alternative approaches that might improve outcomes, or help in more difficult situations in the future
  • Timely on-the-spot feedback as a response to an observation
  • Helping solve organizational or people conflicts
  • Exposure to higher complexity problems or challenges
  • Leveraging the employee’s positive behaviors and characteristics to influencing others
  • Preparation for future roles and positioning the employee for his or her longer term objectives

From my own experience, when I meet with my high performers, I often suggest they evaluate their strengths and ask how those strengths could be put to even more use.   Another approach I have used is to ask the employee to establish a mission statement for their careers that is absent of department, product, location or the immediate business model. When a high performing employee is forced to think about what it is that he or she really wants to do, unbiased from their normal day to day, it helps identify new avenues through which they can achieve new skills and increase their ability to impact the organization for the better.

Coaching for Development:

Coaching for development can be necessary for any employee – high performers, average performers, or low performers. Coaching for development will often focus on exposing the employee to new experiences or introducing him or her to underdeveloped skills. The goal of coaching for development is to help the employee reach higher levels of performance and responsibility.

Coaching for development should center on:

  • Exploring new options and uncovering new ideas or skills to expand their abilities
  • Exposure to new responsibilities or experiences that will enhance his or her ability to perform their current job activities
  • Obtaining knowledge or awareness of “the big picture,” thereby enabling them to perform their job more effectively

One of the most important points in coaching for development is ensuring the employee can see the why behind a given task or assignment. Towards the end of a coaching session, I will help explain to the employee that their career growth and opportunity is highly dependent on their willingness to try new things, learn new skills and openness to being placed in a difficult situation with intent to learn. I will then explain how the options they have identified are great options to help them grow.

Coaching for Improvement or Concern

Coaching for improvement or concern is required to address specific or wide spread gaps in employee performance. Coaching for improvement is necessary to help the employee overcome performance issues that are preventing him or her from meeting individual goals or job expectations. Coaching for concern is necessary when the situation becomes serious and has gone unchanged after several conversations with the employee. These types of issues should be addressed early to prevent them from becoming endemic or problematic.

Coaching for improvement or concern should center on:

  • Delinquency in timing, attendance or meeting specific/general performance expectations
  • Potential long term impact or consequences that are at stake
  • Behavioral or interpersonal issues that affect the employee’s ability to meet objectives
  • Behaviors that negatively impact interpersonal dynamics, team performance or its ability to function effectively
  • Documenting gaps and performance concerns to prepare for future discussions
  • Discussion on possible consequences of inaction, or insignificant change, such as termination

In particular, coaching when there is concern can be very hard for many managers as it can be draining and emotional for both parties. It is important to remain objective and stick to the facts during these discussions to help keep the conversation from getting personal. Further, questions relating to coaching for concern are typically going to be more direct and deliberate to ensure there is minimal ambiguity involved in the conversation. Again, the use of specific facts and details will help keep the discussion clear and objective. As an example, rather than say “How does missing meetings this week hurt the team?” you might want to say something like “How does missing four out of the five meetings we had this week hurt our 5-member team?”

Get Management Tips from MRH By Email!

* indicates required

The Coaching Process:

Coaching is most effective when the employee is afforded the time and opportunity to recreate your assessment (as their manager) of their performance in their own minds. To do this, coaching is best done through a simple five-step process.

  1. The Current State – Defining and outlining the current state with the employee establishes awareness of the present context of a given situation. The current state serves as a baseline against which future results can be measured.
  2. The Benefit of Change – By defining and establishing value in the benefit of change, it encourages buy-in on the part of the employee. Discussing the potential improvements that can be made helps identify what the future might hold.
  3. Employee Ownership for Change – Unless the employee realizes he or she must own and embody changes or improvements, efforts will be futile. The employee must come to the realization that he or she is the only one able to make the changes.
  4. Create and Action Plan – Outlining a future state and mapping out actions to get there helps the employee identify milestones in make a change. Action plans are perhaps the most important part of coaching, because actions serve as the means through which the future state will be obtained.
  5. Revisit and Reinforce – Following up with the employee and checking on progress will help you tweak expectations as well as make adjustments should barriers or issues emerge. Reinforcement will also establish accountability on the part of the employee. When the actions and objectives are met, this then becomes the new future state.

So, while a quick pointer here and there may help busy managers remain efficient at our duties, as leaders of people, we also need to schedule time to sit down with employees to have specific coaching discussions. By using probing questions, managers can improve their ability to mentor and grow their employees since employees who arrive at their own conclusions and solutions to problems will be able to apply the experience to the future.

Good Luck!


Other Resources:

Manager Worksheet for Coaching Sessions (Template)

Guideline for Managers: Coaching Through Questions (8-Page Guideline)

How Making Employees Fail Makes You a Better Manager (Blog Post)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *