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How to coach an employee who is performing well

Focus on these 3 areas for how to coach an employee who is performing well.

how to coach an employee who is performing well

When we think about coaching employees, we often focus on how to coach an underperforming employee – not how to coach an employee who is performing well.

It’s natural. The employee whose negative attitude needs addressing or the employee who habitually makes mistakes is the one who attracts our attention. We channel our coaching toward team members who seem to be struggling because it feels urgent to address and solve… But often we forget how to coach an employee who is performing well, in the process.

This is an enormous oversight. Our team’s best work, after all, is often overly reliant on team members who are exceedingly excellent: The team member who silently takes on more work. The team member who proactively finds solutions to challenges you didn’t anticipate.

Without our best-performing employees, what are we as leaders left with?

Consider this: If a team member gave you their two weeks’ notice tomorrow, how much money of your own salary would be willing to give up to encourage them to stay?

Reflect on what your internal reaction is. If without hesitation, you were willing to put any amount of money down of your own salary to keep this person, that’s a clear indication that this employee is a high performer, and someone you want to make an active effort to keep.

Given this, how much coaching do you dedicate toward your high-performing employees right now?

If your answer is “not enough coaching,” read on for my recommendations for how to coach an employee who is performing well.

3 areas to focus on for how to coach an employee who is performing well

#1: Understand their core motivation.

Coaching a high-performing employee well begins with understanding what this person is motivated by. Someone who is performing well is already typically highly motivated.

But do we know exactly what a top-performing employee’s source of motivation is?

Take a quick minute to reflect on this question:

If you had to guess, what would you say your top-performers are most motivated by?

  • Autonomy and control in work
  • Benefits and perks
  • Career progression opportunities
  • Challenging projects
  • Meaningful problem
  • Public recognition
  • Salary increases
  • Work-life balance
  • All of the above
  • Other

Now let’s reflect on this second question:

For your top-performers, how certain do you feel you know what they are motivated by?

  • Very certain
  • Somewhat certain
  • Not certain at all

If you’re like most leaders (myself included!), you likely answered, “Somewhat certain” or “Not certain at all.” That’s because most of us as leaders have general ideas for what might motivate our top-performers – but haven’t truly asked them directly.

As a result, you’ll want to actively ask questions in your one-on-one meetings around their core motivations. Specifically, try asking these questions in your next one-on-one meeting for how to coach an employee who is performing well:

  • When has it been a time when you’ve felt most motivated in the work that you were doing?
  • What three events in your life would you say have had the biggest impact on you and why?
  • Who do you admire most in your life, and why?
  • What do you value more than anything else?
  • What would you say most deeply motivates you?

💡 These one-on-one questions around motivation (and 100+ more coaching questions) can be found in our One-on-Ones Tool in Know Your Team.

You might find that these precise questions may not feel entirely comfortable for you to ask. Perhaps they seem a bit “fluffy” or “vague”….which is absolutely fine! You don’t have to ask these questions directly, but rather, you can focus on observing how your top-performer behaves: What are they most excited to talk about in their work? When have you seen them truly thrive and seem energized in the work they’re doing? What actions might you be able to detect that reveal what they are most motivated by?

The main takeaway, regardless of what you ask or what you observe, is to challenge yourself as a leader to better understand your high performer’s core motivations if you want to coach them well.

#2: Give choice that aligns with their core motivation.

After you’ve had a one-on-one meeting to better understand their core motivation, you’ll want to focus your coaching on providing choice to your high-performing employee that aligns with their core motivation.

Choice is what enables a person’s intrinsic motivation to thrive, as found in the research by Edward Deci. When you give someone optionality for how to do their work or approach their work, their desire to invest more in it and feel excited about that work increases. This is critical for how to coach an employee who is performing well.

Here are a few examples of how you can do this:

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by challenging projects, give choice around what projects they can work on. For instance, try asking in your coaching conversation: “Which aspect of the last project did you enjoy most, so I can consider that for future projects we work on?”

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by public recognition, give choice around how they might want to be recognized. For instance, try asking in your coaching conversation: “How do you prefer to be recognized for a job well done?”

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by work-life balance, give choice around their workday schedule. For instance, try asking in your coaching conversation: “What meeting can we move around to better accommodate your schedule?”

⚡️ These coaching questions around choice (and 100+ more coaching questions) can be found in our One-on-Ones Tool in Know Your Team.

Whichever questions you try during your one-on-one meetings, consider how you might increase the amount of choice you give your top performers.

#3: Connect their work toward progress toward their core motivation.

Progress is a motivational multiplier. In research reported in Harvard Business Review, making progress on work every day was revealed as the #1 source of motivation for employees. As a result, the more you can connect how your top performer is making progress in line with their core motivation, the better.

Specifically, here are some examples of how to coach an employee who is performing well, in this way:

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by career progression opportunities, emphasize how their work today will generate momentum toward career progression opportunities. For example, you can say, “Here’s how the work you’re doing today will get you to that next level…”

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by meaningful problems, underline the meaningful problem you’re working toward. For example, you can say, “Here’s how the work you’re doing today directly impacts this problem we’re trying to solve…”

If your top-performing employee is most motivated by a salary increase, explain the connection between how progress will correspond to a potential salary increase. For example, you can say, “Here’s how the work you’re doing will get you to the next level, salary-wise…”

As a whole, take a moment to ask yourself as a leader: How can I strengthen the connection between a top performer’s work progress and their core motivation?


These three steps – understanding motivation, giving choice around that motivation, and connecting it to progress – are the foundations of how to coach an employee who is performing well. Too long have we gone without dedicating enough time and rigor toward coaching our top-performing employees. If we do want our best employees to stay, it starts with this coaching.


🚀 Ready to deepen your leadership self-learning? Apply to our Global Manager Learning Path – our 1-year leadership training program that gives you the foundational skills to be an effective leader.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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