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Coaching vs. Counseling

Clint Maun, CSP

Two often misunderstood words are: coaching and counseling.

There is a time and place when supervisors/managers need to listen to coworkers and have empathy. Providing some kind of assistance for them when they’re experiencing personal troubles or other problems affecting their work is crucial. While counseling should be reserved for those who have the appropriate degrees and licenses, it’s important for managers and supervisors to show empathy.

When it’s time to address job performance however, it’s important to be a coach rather than a counselor. What’s the difference? Many managers and supervisors think they can deal with poor job performance with questions such as, “Why did you do that?’ or “How did that happen?” or “What were you thinking?” Those types of questions cause the worker to come up with excuses for his or her behavior which gets neither of you closer to solving the problem.

Instead, the performance needs to be coached. Management consultant Paul McGoldnick emphasizes that “what’s really important when dealing with unacceptable behavior is to go for the act, not the person.” (McGoldnick) Coaching means explaining what went wrong, what behavior needs to be eliminated, what action is needed instead, and how to go about solving the particular problem. This strategy brings the conversation into a venue of ownership of the problem.

The most important thing to remember about coaching people’s performance is that until the person owns the problem, he or she will not fix the problem. All the reasons, data, justifications, issues, stories and examples will make no difference. It’s important for the person to own the problem and to be an integral part of fixing it. But, merely “declaring that someone else owns the problem is not the end of your responsibility.” A supervisor should be an effective teacher—i.e., “coach”—to bring a worker to take ownership of his or her problem(s) and improve their performance. (Miller)

Say, for instance, that Claire’s frequent absences on Fridays have turned into an ongoing problem. Asking Claire, “Why are you absent on Fridays?” will only elicit some kind of excuse. “Why,” by definition, asks for reasons or excuses, and Claire’s response will naturally be just that. “My car didn’t start.”, “I had a personal issue.” or “Something else came up.” Get rid of the “why” questions. The issue is not “Why didn’t you come to work on Friday?” The issue is “Claire, you didn’t come to work on Friday. We need you here on Fridays. Is that a problem? Do I have to have repeated conversations with you about your attendance on Fridays?” Claire has a choice. She can say yes or no. If she says, “Yes, that’s a problem,” then we proceed to fix the problem. If she says, “No, it’s not a problem, and don’t keep bugging me because I don’t want to work on Fridays,” then she doesn’t own the problem.

And if Claire doesn’t own the problem, she won’t fix the problem. So the next question could logically be, “Is it a problem if your frequent absences lead to a written notice in your file?” She again has choices: yes or no. If she says, “Yes, that’s a problem, but. . . “, she still doesn’t own the problem. “Yes, but. . ." still means “no". That’s a crucial point to keep in mind when coaching. When someone says, “Yes, I hear what you’re saying, “but. . .“ or “however. . . ,“ there is still no ownership of the problem. It’s not that person’s fault. He or she just doesn’t own the problem. And the person is not going to fix the problem without first owning it. Consequently, establishing ownership of the problem is critical.

At some point in time, if Claire won’t own the problem of her Friday absences, the supervisor or manager will have to own it and say to her, “Well, Claire, I’ll take responsibility for this, and if in the next ninety days you fail to make it in again on a Friday when you’re scheduled to work, I am going to put a notice in your file. It will affect your performance review. There will be some consequences because somebody has to take ownership of this situation.”

Ultimately, the supervisor’s job should not be to own the problem, but “to create the conditions in which the problem can be resolved by those who own it.” (Miller) The most efficient way of getting Claire to own the problem is by coaching her performance: defining the problem, pinpointing what needs to be eliminated, and making clear what action or behavior is needed instead. If Claire finally takes ownership of the problem, then she can take an active part in coming up with solutions and a method for measuring her success. She becomes a partner in a win- win situation.

Effective coaching does require “patience and a substantial time investment, but it can help modify an employee’s behavior.” (“Managing Problem Employees”) Spending time asking “why” only gets into head games that will cause the worker to come up with excuses: “Everyone else takes off.”, “I have other important things to do.”, “I didn’t know I was supposed to work all the Fridays.”, “People told me I could take off.” or “I meant to show up for work but.. .“. No one wins a head game. It wastes time and fixes nothing. Leave the counseling to the counselors. Instead, coach the worker’s performance.

Works Cited

“Managing Problem Employees.” BellZinc.ca 2003. Bell Canada. November 2003.


McGoldrick, Paul. “Managing the Difficult.” Broadcast EnQineering 1 May 2003. Primedia Business Magazines and Media. November 2003.


Miller, Edward 0. “Owning the Problem.” The Newsroom Leadership Group 2003. November 2003