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Frontline Fundamentals: Coaching and Feedback that Maximize Performance

When I think of the truly great leaders I have had in my life and career, there is one common characteristic they share: the ability to effectively provide coaching and feedback with the primary goal of improving performance and the secondary goal of making me and the team better. Coaching and providing feedback are essential skills you must possess as a leader. They are critical to the success of your team and probably two of the best ways to gain influence and demonstrate C5 leadership (for a refresher on C5 leadership, visit

Demonstrating C5 Leadership
My son and I got involved with the Pinewood Derby when he was in Cub Scouts. Luckily for me, I have a friend whose son never lost a heat during his tenure as a Cub Scout. So, every year when it was time to make the derby car, I would call my friend and ask for advice on how I could help my son build his car (we all know the scouts do most of the work in Pinewood Derby construction). We would also seek his feedback during the construction process.

Why did I do that?

Because of his past success, he had credibility and competence. I viewed him as the subject matter expert. Because we are friends, he cared and demonstrated commitment to our success. During our interactions, he had the courage to provide honest and constructive coaching and feedback. Can you think of a better way to gain influence than for someone to ask for your help and want you to be their mentor?

Establishing Expectations
Prior to providing coaching and feedback, it’s important to establish expectations so that those you are coaching know the standard to which they are being held. Here’s one example of what to do – and what not to do.  

Kid: I’m going outside to play.

Very Wise Parent: OK. Be careful and don’t get too close to the road.

Kid goes outside. Very Wise Parent looks out the window and sees Kid playing beside the road.

Very Wise Parent (yelling): What are you doing? I told you not to get too close to the road!

Kid: I’m not!

Very Wise Parent is going to have a difficult time providing feedback and holding Kid accountable because no specific expectation was established. There must be a standard. We use a dogwood tree in our front yard. Rather than saying, “Don’t get too close to the road,” we say, “Stay on this side of the dogwood tree. If you go past the tree, you will be too close to the road.”

Coaching and Feedback
If you have done a good job of establishing expectations – remembering that communication must result in mutual understanding – coaching and feedback are relatively simple given that you have competence in the task being performed, are committed to your team’s success, care about each individual, and have the courage and credibility to speak up and be honest. Following are some practical tips for providing effective coaching and feedback.

  • Observe performance – notice I didn’t say “results” – yourself.
  • Feedback is reactively giving information as soon as possible that compares performance to the standard, with the goal of improving or reinforcing.
  • Be honest, clear, nonjudgmental and concise when providing feedback.
  • Explain past, present and future impacts of maintaining or improving performance.
  • Understand that people want feedback, but they will get defensive when you give it.
  • Avoid blaming and punishing.
  • Seek to understand by asking questions.
  • Focus on behaviors that can be reinforced or changed.
  • Explain why specific behaviors are good and should be repeated or why they need to be changed.
  • Coaching is a proactive process involving feedback, instruction, practice and performance.
  • Use more do’s than don’ts (e.g., it’s better to tell a golfer to keep their shoulders level than to tell them to stop dropping their right shoulder). 

Sources of Feedback
Lastly, there are three sources of feedback:

  • You and others: Do you feel satisfied that you performed the task to the best of your ability? What are others saying about your performance compared to the standard? The key is to form trusting and respectful relationships and give and receive open and honest feedback.
  • System responses: Using the simple example of a light switch, did the correct light come on when you flipped the switch? In other words, did you perform the correct action(s) on the correct system component(s) and get the result(s) you intended?
  • Results: Remembering that results don’t account for underlying behaviors, what are the short- and long-term results of your performance? 

Just like leadership, communication and developing relationships, coaching and feedback are skills that can be learned, practiced and improved. It’s great to do all that in real-world, on-the-job situations, but I also encourage leaders to find a partner and practice difficult scenarios with them. For example, one difficult scenario could be that a member of your team has a terrible body odor that needs to be addressed. You and your partner should take turns giving and receiving feedback to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s likely that you will find the most difficult and critical step is having the courage to start the conversation and provide honest feedback.

Coaching and feedback are one of your best opportunities to demonstrate your leadership skills. They require a relationship with at least one other person and good communication skills, and they allow you to gain influence through competence, commitment, caring, courage and credibility.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover three areas – safety leadership, incident prevention and human performance – critical to safety success. Visit for more information.


Webinar on Coaching and Feedback that Maximize Performance
September 18 at 3 p.m. Eastern
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Frontline Fundamentals


About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the Director of Education for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( and the author of "Frontline Leadership – The Hurdle" and "Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle". He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators. Reach him at