Coaching vs Feedback: Navigating Two Vital Paths to Growth
October 4, 2023
By Aspen Christopher
Feedback and engagement in the workplace go hand-in-hand. When delivered tactfully, the right types of employee feedback contribute to the growth of both an organization and the people who work there. Like any relationship, honest and trust-driven communication fuels success. In the case of workplace relationships, that communication hinges on the ability to freely share and receive feedback.
Work doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither does growth. Coaching and feedback are essential in personal and professional development and thus deserve attention from managers and other business leaders. Understanding the similarities and differences is crucial to navigating coaching and feedback dynamics, so we’ll cover definitions before we dive deeper into what leaders need to know about balancing coaching and feedback strategies—and what to consider when choosing between coaching and feedback.
We’ll also explore some key best practices for using coaching and feedback strategies separately and together, including timing and personalization. To help you get the most out of your efforts, we’ll also guide you through their relationship with continuous growth and performance optimization.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about coaching and feedback so you can better support your employees and your business goals at the same time.
The Essence of Coaching and Feedback
Coaching and feedback sound similar and, indeed, they are closely related. But it’s important to understand that the two terms are not interchangeable.
Coaching is a dynamic process aimed at guiding individuals toward achieving goals. Example: Manager Taylor is coaching direct report Kelly to help improve efficiency and gain the skills needed to be considered for promotion.
Feedback is information and insights on a person’s performance and behaviors. Example: Manager Jamie provides feedback on the previous month’s sales analysis to direct report Parker, with advice on improving the month ahead.
One way to keep the relationship between coaching and feedback in perspective is to think of coaching for long-term growth and feedback for performance. In the section below, we’ll dive deeper into how and when to use each approach to help your employees build their skills and improve their results.
Coaching: Guiding Development
Let’s zero in on coaching first. Coaching is a proactive approach to professional development, typically with long-term goals. Acting as a coach, one typically helps individuals identify and set goals, create strategies, and overcome obstacles. Similar to a mentorship relationship, a coach might help an employee work through specific real-life scenarios by providing resources for learning and helping nurture skills, knowledge, and self-awareness so that, in the future, the employee will be equipped to handle similar situations on their own.
It’s crucial to remember that coaching is a long-term effort. While some impacts of coaching may be noticeable in the short term, it’s really the cumulative impact of the relationship over time—combined with the employee having opportunities to practice and build skills and confidence—that differentiates coaching from feedback.
Feedback: Illuminating Performance
Now let’s turn our attention to feedback. Feedback is a more reactive approach, aimed at enhancing performance, often in the shorter term (but also contributing to long-term growth). To some degree, feedback is a component of coaching—but it can (and does/should) occur outside of coaching relationships, too.
Feedback is specific to an individual’s performance, often focusing on a particular work deliverable (a report or presentation, perhaps) or on a specific period of time. To be effective, feedback ideally provides insights on what’s working well and what needs improvements. Highlighting strengths as well as opportunities for improvement is crucial.
The best types of feedback are specific, actionable, and constructive. Feedback might include highlighting considerations an employee overlooked, reminding them of resources they underused, or offering suggestions for different approaches to interpersonal situations.
Timing and Context
As we mentioned earlier, coaching typically occurs over an extended period of time. This allows for an in-depth exploration of skills and performance, learning opportunities, and growth. Approaching the concept of coaching with long-term goals in mind also provides opportunities for experimentation and experiential learning—two valuable channels for lasting development.
Feedback can address performance and behavior in a much shorter time period. It can be immediate and address a specific event or action, which is especially helpful when serious missteps occur. Feedback that follows soon after an experience may also be more likely to impact future behavior. After all, we’re more likely to recall events easily when they happened a short time ago vs. trying to address something months after the fact.
Chances are, you’re thinking about specific situations you’ve experienced as a manager as you read this. Whether you consciously chose to address each instance with coaching or feedback or not, you did make a choice. In the next section, we’ll explore some considerations for answering that crucial question: which should I offer, personalized coaching or immediate feedback?
Because of its longer-term nature, coaching tends to be highly personalized and tailored to an individual’s needs and goals. In this way, some may liken coaching to a mentorship—a relationship that requires the involved parties to get to know one another and build trust.
Feedback can be personalized, too. But because feedback often addresses observed behaviors or a specific work product, it may be rooted more in objective assessment. For example, personalized feedback would work best when an employee doesn’t meet their sales quota or struggles to collaborate with another department on a report.
Continuous Growth vs Performance Optimization
As we mentioned earlier, coaching is focused on long-term effects. As such, coaching is a driver of continuous growth and lifelong learning—on an individual as well as organizational level. In workplaces with a culture of coaching, sharing information and celebrating wins can help build trust and inspire engagement.
Being more immediate, feedback aims to optimize current performance and outcomes by helping employees reflect on work they’ve just completed or experiences they’ve just had—giving them optimal opportunity to apply that feedback right away.
The Synergy of Coaching and Feedback
Effective learning in the workplace relies on the combination of coaching and feedback: understanding the differences and which approach to apply to each situation. Indeed, coaching and feedback can complement each other when used appropriately.
Feedback can inform coaching strategies and vice versa. When patterns emerge in feedback, they reveal opportunities to dig deeper when coaching around certain skills. For example, say an employee consistently has difficulty asking for help and often misses deadlines as a result. As a coach, one can suggest ways for the employee to identify trouble before it starts, reinforce the support and resources available to them, and even help them discover and address the root cause.
Likewise, coaching can inform feedback. If an employee is grappling with a particular goal or challenge during coaching, feedback can target related areas and help illuminate clear, actionable steps toward improvement.
Coaching and feedback go together hand-in-hand. Each can exist independently from the other but they work better when they complement one another. Since coaching is more effective at driving long-term growth and feedback is best for immediate reflection, they work on different levels to help employees build skills and confidence while working toward better results.
Choosing the right approach is necessary for maximizing those results. Based on the goals and context of the situation, leaders should be able to make a quick assessment and determine which path is most appropriate—understanding, of course, that feedback can fuel coaching and vice versa. Integrating coaching and feedback into the personal and professional development journey is an effective way to support employees, boost engagement, and keep everyone moving forward.
Ready for the next step?
Using an employee engagement platform like Connects can help bring people together no matter where they work. And with Employee Voice, employees can share feedback on their experience in real-time, giving leaders valuable insights to inform a more effective people strategy.