Guiding every high-performing team is a coach who knows how to help them harness their excellence. A study of over 300 employee supervisor pairs found that when leaders engage in coaching it improves their subordinates’ job performance and inspires them to be more proactive in managing their careers.

However, research shows that not all yield equally positive effects. Here are five research-backed strategies to transform your team into high-performing all stars.

Speak to their True Motivations

As a coach, you have the power to help people discover and achieve their true motivators. After years of studying the link between motivation and performance all across the world, researchers found that there are three motivators that lead to better outcomes than any other:

Autonomy

This is an individual’s sense of independence and ability to structure their work and lives without having to gain approval for everything they do from someone else.

Action step: Increase autonomy by giving your coachee the information and resources they need to succeed, then step back and don’t control their lives.

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Mastery

People need to feel competent at what they do and know that they have the skills and abilities that make them uniquely valuable.

Action step: Help people obtain mastery by giving them access to training, educational materials, networking opportunities and other resources that will help them increase their expertise.

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Purpose

They want to feel like the work they are doing has a greater purpose than earning themselves and their company a paycheck. Most people want to make the world a better place and given how much time jobs consume, people are more motivated when they are able to achieve their altruistic goals through their work.

Action steps:

  • Connect your coachee’s responsibilities to the greater impact their work makes.
  • Look for additional opportunities for your coachee to use their role to make a difference.

The best part about these three motivators is that fostering them is just as beneficial for your team’s overall goals as it is for each individual. When people have more autonomy, you save time by not constantly checking in on them. The more mastery someone achieves, the better their technical performance. And, the more purpose individuals find in their roles, the more committed they are to making the team succeed.

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Boost their Neuroplasticity

The most potent way for you to coach people to success is to increase their natural ability to succeed.

Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to form new neural connection. The more plastic someone’s brain is, the faster their brain can cope with cognitively challenging tasks. Your coachee’s ability to learn, acquire new skills and excel at cognitively demanding tasks is dependent upon their brain’s plasticity. Therefore, you cannot help them improve their performance to the best of your ability without taking this into consideration.

Luckily, the brain is like a muscle and exercising it increases its strength. There are two primary ways to exercise the brain:

  1. Learn new things. This can be anything from crafting to astrophysics, as long as it’s something you’re unfamiliar with.  
  2. Do cognitively challenging, but low stress, tasks like mind games, riddles, puzzles, etc.

As a coach, you need to find ways to ensure your coachees are exercising their brains in one or both of those ways.

If you are coaching your direct reports, the simplest way to boost their neuroplasticity is to offer them unstructured time if they don’t have it already. This is a set number of hours every week that they can work on any project as long as it is somewhat related to the organization and/or use the organization’s existing products and/or services to create something new. Employees at companies such as Google, 3M, Inuit and others have created hundreds of valuable product offerings and features by using their company’s resources to solve problems and make their dream products. Even enormous breakthroughs like Twitter have been created on unstructured time.

If you aren’t coaching direct reports, the brain exercises you encourage your coachees to do can be dependent upon their interests. The beauty of neuroplasticity is that it improves regardless of what brain exercises people do, so learning something for a personal passion is just as effective as creating a new project for work.

Action steps:

  • If it is within your ability, offer your team a set number of unstructured hours per week to work on anything. During coaching sessions, find out what they are working on and if it seems like a viable option, turn their side projects into official responsibilities.
  • If your team does not have unstructured time and/or you don’t have the authority to make the person you’re coaching work on brain-exercising projects outside of their time with you, help them develop a plan to exercise their brain on their own. Also, consider extending the time of your meetings to incorporate brain exercises into them.
  • However, I understand that time is a scarce resource. To add additional time to your meetings without extending their length, write out updates and other information that is important but doesn’t necessarily need to be discussed, hand it to your coachee, and spend the time you would have used explaining that sheet doing creative activities.

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Turn Down the Noise in Your Coachee’s Lives

In today’s fast-paced work environments, many people feel like their energy and attention is being pulled in a dozen different directions causing them to struggle to focus on and complete individual task. As a coach, it is your responsibility help people mute the excess noise and tune into what matters.

A study in the Business Horizon’s Journal found that the most effective leaders coach their teams by helping them see the big picture and structure their time to reach those goals. If you are coaching your direct reports, this includes clarifying your deliverable expectations and giving them permission to set aside non-urgent tasks. The study also, unsurprisingly, found that the most effective coaches provide their coachees with honest and constructive feedback. This further eliminates noise by informing people what they are already great at and don’t need to focus on improving, opening up more time for them to focus on the areas where they do need improvement.

Research also shows that people perform better when they are given clear expectations about the outcomes they are expected to produce. The easiest way to explain what you envision for their project is to give them a list of the major action steps they need to complete it. If you plan on doing progress checks, attach deadlines to each action step so they understand how fast they are expected to work.

Action steps: When you meet with employees, incorporate these steps into your discussion:

  • Have them organize all of their current responsibilities.
  • Help them determine what their primary priorities should be based on both deadline proximity and the value each project adds. With those in mind, go through their to-do list with them and eliminate any tasks that don’t contribute to their priorities.

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Foster the 3 E’s of High-Performance Communication

To improve overall team performance, one of your primary coaching focuses should be on improving team communication. A study published in Harvard Review found that managers of the most successful teams emphasize communication and team engagement skills rather than fostering each individual’s technical skill talents. This is because teams who share mutual trust and communicate well are more likely to identify and solve problems faster than specialist teams where people focus on honing their own expertise without seeking input from others.

According to their study, the three characteristics of communication that affect team performance the most are:

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Energy

They measure this by the quantity and type of messages sent between people. Face-to-face is the most valuable form of communication because it allows for nonverbal interactions. It’s followed by telephone, video conferencing and written forms.

Note: Phone and video meetings become less effective the more people that are in the meeting, because it increases the risk that individuals who are not directly participating will disengage from the conversation. In coaching sessions, encourage your team to avoid large phone and video meetings.

High energy teams communicate with one another throughout the day through a series of interactions ranging from momentary updates to in-depth conversations.  Energy levels also shift based on your team’s current priorities. It is okay to have low energy days if your technical team members need some solitary time to focus on independent projects or you must lead meetings that share important information that your team needs to know but doesn’t necessarily have much to say about it. Following these periods of low energy, facilitate open-ended conversations to raise their energy levels.

Action step: Encourage the people on your team to get to know one another and emphasize the importance of collaborating with one another. This will keep your team’s energy level high.

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Engagement

This is the amount of energy that every individual on the team has. On highly engaged teams, everyone has high energy levels while less engaged  teams may have one or two energetic people with several low-energy ones. Highly engaged teams almost always perform better than their less engaged counterparts.

Action step: Estimate your team’s engagement level and identify which team members have lower energy than the rest. Dedicate a large portion of your coaching sessions with those individuals teaching them the importance of interacting with the team and teaching how to do it if they have weak social skills.

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Exploration

The highest performing teams don’t just share ideas among themselves, they also spend time exploring and and bringing in ideas from outside the organization. Individuals on highly explorative teams spend lots of time reading, attending events, seeing new places, etc. and share the knowledge and skills learned with the rest of the team.

Exploration is especially important for creativity and innovation driven teams. If people rarely leave your team’s bubble, it can become nearly impossible for them to think of new approaches to solve problems and create things.

The article warns that exploration can lower engagement because it forces people to split their energy between being focused on the team and the outside world. As a coach, it is your job to help them strike the balance and keep their energy levels high.

Action step: In your coaching sessions, encourage your team members to explore and bring back their insights.

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Understand the Science of Giving Valuable Feedback

As a coach or leader, your primary responsibility is giving feedback. This can be a delicate process as you balance maintaining strong relationships with your team while also needing to demand results. Here are three research-baked strategies to deliver performance-boosting feedback:

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Recognize effort not ability

Too often, people are judged solely on their outputs with no consideration for the effort they invest in projects. Obviously outcomes are important, but in the long-run, they are not what makes a great team member. You can train someone with a strong work ethic to become more skilled and efficient. However, people who have a weak work ethic will rarely independently feel compelled to work harder than minimally necessary.

According to Stanford researcher, D. Carol Dweck, praising people for their effort encourages them to develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that, no matter how challenging a situation is, you have the ability acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. People with a growth mindset tend to be more resilient and higher performers because they are willing to invest the effort it takes to level up and meet expectations. By praising people primarily for their effort, not their accomplishment when they succeed, you reinforce their motivation to work hard.

Likewise, if you want your team to feel safe taking creative risks, you have to accept that failures are inevitable. When giving post-failure feedback, focus on the amazing effort they put into the project and help  them trace their actions to identify what mistakes were made. This creates a learning opportunity and should prevent them from fearing creative pursuits in the future.

Action step: During coaching sessions, praise and criticize people based on the amount of effort they invested in their work. Effort includes time, energy, creativity, etc. and use their level of effort in those areas to explain their outcomes.

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Listen as much or more than you speak

Researchers discovered that the more time a manager spent listening to their employees, the higher their feedback sessions are rated. For some individuals, receiving critical feedback feels like a personal attack. From a performance standpoint, this is dangerous because once people become defensive, they stop paying attention to your feedback. By asking your team members questions and giving them the opportunity to explain themselves or share any concerns with you, it turns your coaching session into a less-threatening conversation and makes people more open to your feedback. You may also find out that the reason for someone’s poor performance was a miscommunication of expectations or other factors outside of their control that as a leader, you need to improve.

During coaching sessions that are focused on celebrating your coachee’s successes, encourage them to reflect on what made them successful and what goals they want to pursue moving forward.  This information will help you continue to support their success and to the greatest extent possible, give them work that aligns with their long-term visions for their careers.

Action step: When giving feedback, ask your coachee questions and give them time to explain their side of the story. If possible, use their input to improve their working conditions moving forward.

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Follow-up on feedback

One of the biggest mistakes coaches make is giving their teams guidance and never checking to see the outcomes of it or if the people they coached even followed their advice at all. A five year study of over 250 managers found that the leaders who followed up to find out the outcomes of their feedback had saw increased performance in their employees than the ones who didn’t.

Action step: Schedule time a couple of weeks after every coaching session to find out the extent that your advice is being followed and whether or not it is improving your coachee’s performance. If you coach people on a regular basis, this can be added to the beginning of your coaching session but if not, a quick meeting or phone call is a sufficient follow-up.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

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