Coaching or feedback: How do we know which form of communication works better? The answer varies based on the situation, and it is critical to know the difference.

Feedback and coaching accomplish different goals. Feedback can be used during coaching but does not require coaching. Coaching consists of a dedicated person supporting another through a transition, professional development or performance goal. Coaching is a powerful tool. Simple feedback is not as supportive and intensive as coaching, which includes the ability to explain various perspectives of a given situation.

Feedback is typically used to adjust a specific behavior or give a response to a specific question. If an employee is working on a project and asks for feedback from a manager, the manager gives his or her perspective on the employee’s work. When an employee does something that is incorrect, the manager gives timely feedback, allowing the employee to adjust the behavior. Not all feedback is used to change a negative action, though; it is also used to praise a job well done.

Providing effective feedback is a managerial responsibility. To be effective, feedback must be specific, timely, clear and succinct. Managers give feedback all the time, but coaching is not appropriate in all instances. For example, it may not be suitable for task-oriented job roles or new employees who have not learned their roles and still need assistance learning their new responsibilities.

If a manager also wants a particular employee to develop advanced skills sets and understand the big picture of the workplace, she may assign him a coach or ask him to choose a coach based on expertise. The coach collaborates with the employee and forms an ongoing relationship. Feedback, on the other hand, is provided once, without further enrichment or development. Coaching helps employees feel motivated and valued by the organization, and even virtual employees can be coached.

Virtual Coaching

Think about the steps of completing an online course. Typically, there are multiple-choice knowledge checks and questions throughout the course that need to be answered before you can move forward. When you answer a question, the course provides instant feedback, letting you know if you answered correctly or incorrectly. If the question was answered incorrectly, the feedback includes an explanation of why that answer was incorrect.

To add a coaching element to this online course, design it as a blended learning experience, and provide a live person to explain the answer and make sure that the learners fully understood so that they can grow professionally. To create this experience, you could use discussion boards, a web cam, chat areas and/or an online class forum.

Coaching a virtual employee may involve more phone calls or virtual facetime on a regular basis, but any employee can be coached, whether they’re remote or co-located. The coach practices active listening and offers responses to the employee that are supportive and show commitment to them. Active listening includes paraphrasing what the other person said, using different words to ensure understanding. Coaches encourage involvement, offering the employee an outlet to share innovative ideas and feel heard, which in turn improves performance. The coach fosters trust in the relationship, making the employee comfortable being open and asking questions. Coaches also help employees develop a better understanding of how their work contributes to the “big picture” of the department or organization as a whole.

Feedback and coaching are critical tools for the success of an organization and for the development of high-performing employees, virtual or co-located. Coaching reinforces and refines the way an individual executes a skill and continues after mastery of that skill. Feedback is used either to reinforce or to rectify a specific behavior in a given situation. Without feedback, improvements or changes could not occur. Coaching is ongoing, whereas feedback has an end. Deciding which one to use is circumstantial, and managers should decide which to implement depending on the goals they want to accomplish.