When The Best Leaders Use Coaching vs. Feedback

I was finishing up an Elevate Others leadership workshop and one of the participants who asked an important question. “What’s the difference in coaching versus feedback?”  Turns out he wasn’t alone asking the question.

Coaching is a form of development in which a person called a coach supports a learner or client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal by providing training and guidance.

The first use of the term “coach” in connection with an instructor or trainer arose around 1830 in Oxford University slang for a tutor who “carried” a student through an exam. The word “coaching” thus identified a process used to transport people from where they are to where they want to be.  

Feedback, on the other hand, is the information sent to an individual or a group about its prior behavior so that the entity may adjust its current and future behavior to achieve the desired result.

Here are some general differences between coaching and feedback:


  • Focused on behavior for the future
  • Developmental in nature
  • Tends to be question oriented to promote self-discovery
  • Best used to develop skill deficiencie


  • Focused on previous behavior either good or bad
  • Evaluative in nature
  • Direct often in person
  • Best used to improve will issues

As you can tell the two are very different things trying to achieve a similar result.

The natural question is, which one should you use?  

The short answer is it’s almost always better to default to coaching instead of feedback because coaching is coming from the point of view from the person receiving and feedback is coming from the leader’s point of view. Feedback isn’t all bad and if delivered positively can lead to great results. But that’s not typically how it’s given. It generally’s provided with a “what the hell is wrong with your attitude” which doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s not very productive in today’s environment.

Delivering Direct Feedback Effectively

Being direct with feedback can be an extremely effective way to change the outcome in the future. Before you jump on the “direct feedback” train the most critical factor of delivering feedback is how you do it.

There was a study done by researchers from Stanford, Columbia, and Yale to explore the secrets of giving great feedback. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.

To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not and improved their performance significantly. What was the magical feedback?

This one phrase:

“I am giving you these comments because I have very high standards and I know that you can reach them.”

If you come in guns blazing giving direct feedback and you are angry and aren’t delivering it to improve future results the feedback is only going to lead to disengagement and resentment.  Remember the whole point of feedback isn’t to make yourself feel good or to show your power as a leader it’s to help adjust behavior to improve future results.

Coaching to Improve Performance

Getting better at coaching is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do as a leader of a team..  The easiest way for you to think about coaching comes from Michael Bungay Stanier “Stay curious a little bit longer and rush to advice giving a little bit slower.”  To do this, you have to focus on pulling the answers out of your team. This ensures their skills are evolving if only for the fact that you are forcing them out of their comfort zone and helping them develop the ability to solve their own problems.

Here are some tactical questions to add to your arsenal to help you get better at coaching:

  • What would you do?
  • I am not sure of the answer, what do you think?
  • What other approaches might you take next time?

So the next time you are trying to decide if you should provide coaching for feedback, default to coaching and when you give feedback, do so in a way that will help improve future results by making it magical.

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company which exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. John was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by Training Industry.com. John is also the author the upcoming book “Elevate Others: The New Model to Successfully Lead Today” and host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on instagram @johngeades.

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