Stop Calling It 'Coaching' When All You're Really Doing Is Scolding Your Team Constructive criticism is perhaps the most important and least common leadership skill.

By Phil La Duke

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In the past three months or so a small cadre of people from disparate backgrounds complained to me that they were "coached". Not coached mind you, but full blown, angry air quotes "coached".

The difference between being coached and "coached" is more than a minor semantic distinction; it's the difference between being treated like a misbehaving toddler and a valued professional and team member. In the latter case, you will likely take the criticism well and earnestly work to do better, while in the former case you will like think of the person as a hypercritical ass-hat who neither likes nor values you. You may comply with their request, but you will also lose respect for them and may become passive aggressive. It's tough to give your all for people who can do nothing but find fault and it's easy to decide that if you're not valued at one company you risk very little going to work for another.

Coaching is about enhancing positive performance and reducing negative performance. Professional athletic coaches seldom coach by yelling "stop losing" at their players. Good coaching involves feedback, so if you haven't read my seminal piece on the subject, feel free to take a break and read it now Six Rules For Effective Feedback, if you have read it feel free to send a copy to whomever makes you contort your arms and fingers like a T-Rex at a surprise party (angry air quotes).

There are in my book four basic forms of feedback easily to remembered using the acronym SCAR (Silence, Criticism, Advice, and Reinforcement). While each has an appropriate use, misusing these forms of feedback can and will lead to catastrophic and long lasting results.

Related: The 5 Essentials to Effective Coaching


Silence is the practice of saying nothing at all -- not verbally or nonverbally. Since the recipient's brain has nothing to work with from information about our behavior we tend to become paranoid.

I once worked for a woman who would have a staff meeting that would include everyone on her staff except me. Did I assume they were planning a surprise party for me and respond by sneaking gift ideas into her office? No, I assumed that whatever nefarious scheme they were cooking up would adversely affect me and I felt like my boss didn't trust me with sensitive information. Having worked with CEOs and COOs for most of my career, confidentiality has to be my most sacred and closely guarded attribute. Fortunately, all those years of me not listening has paid off. For the record I hate unproductive meetings. I would rather put out lit cigarettes in my ears than endure another briefing on topics about which I neither care nor want to know, so I can honestly say that I didn't want to go, but excluding me made me think that she was out to get me.

There are appropriate uses for silence, most notably when you are so angry with a person that you are likely to slip from constructive criticism to an out-and-out verbal assault. But short of the danger of calling someone everything but a child of God, you should avoid silence as your go-to method of feedback. You are delusional if you think that your people will know they are valued until you tell them otherwise.

Related: Why Executive Coaching Is a Critical Part of the CEO Journey


Criticism is a form of feedback that focuses primarily on negative behavior. It, too, has its appropriate uses, typically when there is no part of the behavior that is positive and you don't particularly value the employee.

This type of feedback should be used when a person has done something so egregious that there is honestly no reason to try to preserve the relationship, such as stealing or sexual harassment. Even if, apart from these character flaws, the employee in question is an exemplary worker you probably don't want them to continue on your payroll.

Unfortunately, when someone is "coached" they are typically being criticized. The overuse of criticism leads to a host of problems from escape and avoidance to the elimination of related, desirable behaviors. But what's most damaging is get a dressing down for something that bothers someone but really isn't that big a deal. If I get an earful (does it still count as an earful if the feedback is given via email?) about the content of my emails I am likely to say "okay fine, I won't send any emails at all." If I get blasted for using less-than-professional language on an internal message board, I am more likely to stop reading and posting altogether than I am to watch my word choice in the future.

This isn't childish petulance, this is self-preservation. While it feels oh-so-satisfying to criticize another person, the person criticized often loses motivation and begins to sincerely dislike the person criticizing him or her. While they generally stop doing the negative behavior, they are also motivated to quit their jobs and work for the competition. It's a fairly destructive way to run a business.

Related: 7 Habits of Masterful Managers Who Coach Their Teams to Success


Advice is the best way to offer feedback, assuming you respect and value the person to whom you are speaking. Advice begins with something you genuinely value in the other person, then gently transitions to the behavior that needs to be addressed.

Years back, I worked at a faith-based organization that took this one step further, but as odd as I initially found it, they made it exponentially more powerful. They had a scripted formula for giving feedback and it went like this: "I would like to give you some feedback, would that be all right? What I value most about you is (fill in the blank) and I think you would be even more effective if you did (fill in the blank)."

Okay, okay, I felt like a complete knob the first time I did this, but the more I did this the more natural it felt. I would have much appreciated the feedback I was given if it was phrased more like, "Phil, I really value your opinion and the ideas you suggest when someone asks for advice in a group email. I think you would be more effective if you just sent a serious answer to the sender instead of using reply-all, which many people find disruptive and irritating."

Message received! I would have felt that my serious contributions were valued and appreciated.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback


Reinforcement is used when there is no negative behavior associated with the situation and you would like to see more of this positive behavior. Reinforcement is ideal for someone deserves to be recognized for doing something truly above and beyond. Don't go overboard with reinforcement, however, or you may find yourself accidentally reinforcing related and yet not-so-desirable behaviors as well.

Now that you know the difference between coaching and "coaching" share a copy with all those folks out there who think they're doing one but are actually doing the other.

Phil La Duke


Phil La Duke is a speaker and writer. Find his books at Twitter @philladuke

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