Do you know when to teach, mentor or coach?

Coaching in the workplace

Do you know when to teach, mentor or coach?

One of the challenges facing people managers is how best to support employee development in order to improve performance. When it comes to regular development conversations the options include teaching, mentoring and coaching. So, which one to choose? It all depends on the circumstances, ability and attitude of your direct report.


Employees that are enthusiastic but may lack the knowledge and skills required to perform effectively – typically those new in a role, tend to respond better to a more directive approach such as offering guidance, instructing and telling them how to do things. This teaching approach works best when there’s a knowledge gap, when time is short and when the task is ‘one-off’, urgent or relatively straightforward.

The downside is that the manager is the one doing the thinking and solving the problem. It can end up as time consuming if the employee turns to you every time they can’t do something. You end up owning the performance challenges rather than the employee.


Mentoring is less directive, where you offer advice, make suggestions or ‘open doors’. It is up to your employee whether they act on your advice or not. They take more ownership.

This works best for longer term issues such as career progression, learning the ropes or gaining organisational wisdom.


Coaching is focused on building your employee’s self-awareness, taking responsibility and committing to action. This non-directive approach relies on listening, paraphrasing and asking powerful questions.

This works best when building on what the employee already knows, enhancing behaviours, addressing motivation or commitment challenges or delivering on repeat responsibilities. The manager in these situations should always expect more from the employee than the person believes they are capable of accomplishing. In short, the manager coach helps others to perform to full potential.

While it may initially take a little longer to coach rather than teach, for the employee it engenders self-awareness, deeper learning, self-reliance and greater ownership of their own performance.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”.

The manager doesn’t have to know all the answers, in fact for coaching it’s often better if you don’t. There’s a great buzz when you support someone to figure things out for themselves. If done well coaching strengthens the manager/employee relationship, engagement, motivation and retention.

When choosing how to approach the development of their employees, managers should ask themselves is this a teaching, mentoring or coaching opportunity. Most of us find it easy to give direction, offer guidance and advice or teach, but we find coaching difficult especially when we know the answer.

What’s your experience in teaching, coaching, and mentoring people?

Learn more on how you can use the tried and tested GROW coaching model to improve employee performance or if you need support with your development approach – Get in Touch

Richard McCarthy

Richard joined OMT in 1998 and is head of Consultancy Services following a 14 year international career in project management, financial control and various management development roles. Richard specialises in working with Senior and Middle Management, focusing on critical Organisational Development Initiatives such as Strategy Development & Implementation, Change Management, and the roll-out of extensive Management & Leadership Development Programmes and One to One Executive Coaching. His previous work across Europe and Africa has helped him understand the impact of organisational culture, and change on managers’ ability to deliver successful results. Richard enjoys the challenge he gets from his work, especially working with clients who face difficult strategic choices or need to develop new skills & behaviours. Richard believes the rewards are satisfying when you know you have made a meaningful contribution.

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