Coaching vs. Counseling: What's the Difference?

coaching vs counseling Photos by Getty Images Ask the Expert Career Blog 9/15/2016 By: Barbara Mitchell

Coaching and counseling are different tools that apply in different situations—and a good supervisor knows which one an employee needs.

Q: I'm confused about the terms coaching and counseling. Are they the same thing or, as a manager, do I need to do them both?

A: I'm not surprised that you're confused by these terms, because they sometimes are used interchangeably. However, coaching and counseling are two, very different tools that managers use. Let's see if we can make this less confusing:

Coaching is used to increase performance, when the employee is already performing the job well and needs encouragement to reach greater heights. The employee has excellent skills in some areas but needs support to achieve goals in other areas of the job. An example is an employee who has excelled at managing a staff but needs to work on being more politically savvy.

Counseling is used to improve performance, when the manager has identified a problem with the employee's current performance that, if uncorrected, may derail his or her ability to succeed or even to stay with the organization. An example is an employee who isn't meeting sales targets.

A successful manager is both a coach and a counselor and knows what each employee needs at a particular time. This takes some practice, but it can be done.

To be a good coach or counselor, managers have to be good listeners and be genuinely interested in retaining the best talent. Good managers set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback on where employees need to improve and encourage employees to learn and grow.

Let's say you have an employee who you think has the potential to take on new responsibilities. He always brings new ideas to the team and makes great suggestions for improving processes and tasks. This employee needs a manager to coach him—to help him develop the skills he needs to take a big step forward in his career.

A successful manager is both a coach and a counselor and knows what each employee needs at a particular time.

On the other hand, you have an employee who isn't meeting the goals you set together in her last performance review. You've pointed out where she's not meeting expectations, provided the tools she needed, and helped where you can, but you're not seeing improvement. This employee needs you to counsel her—maybe even put her on a performance improvement plan to outline where she needs to improve by a given date and what the consequences of not improving are (up to and including termination).

Understanding the differences between coaching and counseling is crucial to successful manager-employee relationships. Working on your coaching and counseling skills will help you be a better manager and develop a more productive and engaged staff.

Barbara Mitchell

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer? Send it to