Core Management Skills: Coaching, Feedback, Productivity, and One-on-Ones


LifeLabs Learning is a leadership skills accelerator that’s served 2,300+ companies, including CapitalOne, TED, Reddit, Spotify, and The New York Times. This guide walks through key skills in the manager toolkit, including offering question-based coaching, providing specific and actionable feedback, prioritizing with limited resources, and holding developmental 1-on-1 conversations.

Table of Contents

Why are management skills important to business success? 

Managers have a disproportionate impact on employee engagement and performance  – given their role in the company, managers are amplifiers of behavior and catalysts of performance. They are uniquely positioned to address individual employee needs, while supporting collective outcomes. Their role functions like a lever –– a small input can yield massive input (read more about the important role of managers here). 

Good management turns individual contributors into future leaders – you want to create a network of independent problem solvers. If managers are the single source of solutions, that’s a short-sighted arrangement. Coaching spreads skills widely through the organization to prevent a bottleneck at key positions and to foster future leaders.

What are “tipping point” skills?

They’re the small changes that have an outsize impact on success – these are the most important and foundational skills a manager can have; they unlock managers’ and teams’ ability to handle challenges that come their way. “Tipping point skills” have widespread utility across a variety of domains, roles, and use cases. 

Manager tipping point skills covered in this guide:

  • Coaching – using questions to engage, empower, and improve performance in your direct reports.
  • Feedback – knowing how to give feedback that is specific, actionable, and motivating.
  • Productivity and prioritization – working smarter when time and resources are limited.
  • Effective 1:1s – holding developmental 1-on-1 conversations that are productive, motivating, and clarifying for reports.

Coaching skills:

What’s the purpose of coaching? What should managers employ coaching for?

Coaching helps people solve their own problems – there are many practical purposes to coaching, including:

  • To develop someone
  • To unblock someone 
  • To solve a tangible problem
  • To teach critical or strategic thinking
  • To build trust in relationships 

How do you identify coaching moments? 

Coaching can happen in any conversation, and at any level – in most cases, when a report comes to you with a question, there’s a question that can get you a bit more insight before you share an answer. (Of course for a factual question like “Where is the bathroom?”, answering with another question is annoying–use your judgment). This process of “q-stepping” is a core behavioral unit of a coaching, and collaborators of any level can have coaching moments in any conversation. It builds trust because it involves hearing how another person’s mind works, and what their thinking is. 

Be the “rubber duck” – this idea was popularized in the early 2000s tech scene; engineers had rubber ducks on their desks, and before asking someone else about a problem, they had to explain the problem to the duck. In coaching moments, forcing someone to synthesize a problem statement like that can get you on the right path to a solution.

Coaching moments can be explicit at first – when you’re just developing coaching habits, it’s not a bad idea to put explicit moments for coaching on the calendar or make a goal to ask five questions in a conversation. As you get more comfortable with that habit, it will become natural. 

What does effective coaching look like?

Begin with an open mind – approach a situation with curiosity and create space to be agnostic about the answer. Be willing to step away from preconceived notions about the problem so you don’t misunderstand the root of the situation. 

Meet the moment with open-ended questions – lead with open-ended questions like: 

  • “What’s going on?”
  • “What do you need right now?”
  • “Tell me more about how this got to be this way?”
  • “What’s your understanding of the situation?” 

Follow up with a “playback” – play back what you heard from the other person to ensure a mutual understanding and signal that you’re hearing them. Then, distill down the heart of the matter. A good playback is shorter than what you heard. 

“Split-track” problems – often the issues you hear are actually an amalgamation of six different issues. A great coach looks at this litany of issues and parses them out to organize the chaos. Ask which you should talk about first to address them sequentially.

Stop asking questions when they’ve figured out the answer – the goal isn’t to get to the point where you have all the information and offer a recommendation. Ask questions and eventually share your thoughts until you’ve both reached a conclusion.

Tip: Balance problem-solving advice with questionsif an employee just wants the answer, say something like, “You came to me for advice and I have thoughts, but I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about it.” You’d be surprised how often they solve their own problems. But it’s also not the Socratic Method—asking leading questions to another adult is obnoxious. Reveal your thoughts and feelings while creating space for questions. Don’t be totally neutral and distance yourself from the situation, that’s the difference between a business leader and a therapist.


Why is feedback an important part of a manager’s job?

It encourages positive behavior and stamps out negative behavior – if an employee doesn’t get timely feedback to guide their behavior, they don’t know what “good” looks like. Negative behaviors will persist and positive behaviors might not. If managers know how to coach and give feedback, then every conversation becomes an opportunity to improve, rather than waiting for performance reviews.

It empowers employees to get things done – the classic definition of a manager is someone who ensures work gets done without doing it themselves. Feedback gives people the guidance they need to accomplish more and expand their roles. 

What are the elements of effective feedback? 

There are three dimensions of effective feedback: 

  • Receivable – feedback needs to be brain-friendly enough to get the message through. Otherwise, your feedback won’t achieve anything.
  • Actionable – the feedback needs to be specific and observable so the employee knows what to do more often (or less).
  • Balanced – include a mix of positive and negative feedback. Feedback should be used to reinforce strengths, not just correct issues. 

From there, each piece of feedback should include four elements: 

  • Micro-yes – prime people to receive the feedback by getting an affirmative answer that they’re ready to receive feedback.
  • Data or behavior – feedback should address what is observable. Establish the shared reality of observable behavior you can talk about in feedback.
  • Impact – outline what the impact of that observable behavior was. How did it help or hurt business outcomes?
  • Question – ideally, feedback is a conversation. Sometimes it’s just “Are we agreed you will take a different approach next time?” But typically it’s more nuanced and a resolution comes from dialogue. 

What does good feedback look like in different contexts?

WrittenThe email subject line indicates that the email contains feedback (so the recipient knows what’s coming when they open the email) If the feedback is generally positive, clear, and straightforward, then written feedback can suffice. If it’s nuanced, it should be supported with a verbal conversation.
Invite further dialogue 
Take care with clarity—people tend to interpret written feedback with a bias toward negative information
Ad-HocThe micro-yes needs to be actively procured e.g. “are you open to some feedback about X right now?”
If it’s a difficult conversation, you might want to let them choose the modality of communication
Make sure it’s in a private location
Planned performance reviewThe micro-yes is already in the calendar invite 
Make sure you include data and impact for each item

Use clear language grounded in behaviors – avoid blurry phrases like “great team player”. The employee won’t know what that means, and they won’t know how to replicate that behavior. It might also be indicative of a bias. If you can’t articulate the reasoning behind an impression, it might not be good feedback to give.

Never give feedback on assumptions about employee feelings – don’t say “John doesn’t care about his work”. If you’re giving difficult feedback, start with the actions that warrant it. This also applies to positive feedback, praise should identify what behaviors employees should repeat.

What do you do if feedback isn’t being implemented? 

The next feedback conversation should address the failure – call out that they’ve fallen into a pattern of behavior. You want to focus on figuring out what’s at the root of the problem.

Check for obstacles or mitigating factors – approach with curiosity about why the feedback wasn’t implemented. It’s rare that a pattern of behavior is purely the result of indifference. Often, there’s a misunderstanding or obstacle you’ll want to identify.

If it recurs for a third time, you might have a more frank conversation – then it’s truly a cause for concern and you need to approach the employee with less lenience, identifying where and why they’ve fallen short and building an understanding of the consequences. 

Read more about how to address common feedback obstacles here

How should you request feedback as a manager?

Ask for feedback from reports often – if you want reports to give feedback, ask for it all the time. In 1:1s, you might ask to do feedback swaps. Every time you reach a milestone you can ask each other what worked well and what didn’t.

Model positive feedback behavior for your reports – show employees what it looks like to be receptive to constructive feedback, and show a desire for feedback that illustrates that it’s a tool, not a chastisement. 

Ask specific questions to solicit honest feedback from your reports –  feedback across power dynamics can be uncomfortable for some people. If you just ask for general feedback, reports might be diffident and blank. Specific questions mitigate the power dynamic so they don’t feel like it’s an evaluation of a manager to their face. Ask questions like: 

  • “What about that worked for you?”
  • “What could have gone better?”

Productivity and prioritization:

Why is prioritization an important part of a manager’s job?

You can figure out how to accomplish more within your constraints – there are always more things to do than time, energy, and resources to do it. Prioritization will help you figure out the most important and impactful areas to work on at any given time, so you can push off the rest. Part of the manager’s job is helping the team feel comfortable saying no to those other things. 

Prioritization and productivity skills are mental health skills – the impact of feeling like everything is urgent all the time ups your cortisol levels, makes you more stressed, and hurts your life and work product. 

What common productivity and prioritization challenges do managers face?

There are four buckets of productivity and prioritization challenges – we’ve worked with over 400,000 of managers, and almost every productivity challenge they’ve had falls into one of these categories. 

Problem AreaWhat the problem isWhere it shows up
ChronemicsTime awareness shortcomings• Showing up late to meetings
Promising a deliverable in a week that takes a month
PrioritizationFailing to identify the most important thing at any given time and being unable to resist the urge to work on less important things.The adage “everything is urgent.” Well, if everything’s urgent, then nothing is
Working all day but not getting to your top three items
OrganizationLack of a reliable system for tracking and progressing tasks.Leaving a meeting where you agree someone should alert customers the product will be down Friday, but  no one does it because the task wasn’t assigned
High-priority items get ignored because people only respond to what shows up in their inbox every day
FocusAttention is pulled away from the tasks at hand, this is especially relevant in hybrid work environments.Compulsive checking of notification channels
Looking at emails while you’re in an important 1:1
Writing half an email and moving to a different task

What techniques can managers use to boost productivity (for themselves and for reports)? When is each appropriate?

Diagnose what your issue is – which of the four problem buckets is holding you back? If you can identify that, you can strategically pick the tool that is going to help your productivity. 

Though the goals are universal, the techniques are very personal – we all have different thinking styles, preferences, and workflows. There are very few tools that are one size fits all. Figure out what works for you.

Example Productivity Boosting Techniques
ChronemicsDe-blur your time words – if you tell someone to get you something ASAP, when is that? If you need a quick chat, how long do you need? This is a great way to tighten chronemics, align, and reduce stress.
PrioritizationAn MIT list – force yourself to write your top three priorities every day, and then track your progress. If they don’t get them done, you might realize those weren’t the real priorities, or that you have an organizational problem. If you struggle to write them, that might be a lack of clarity from your leaders.
OrganizationThe close loop habit – get in the habit of closing loops. Tasks swirling in your brain can cause psychic residue that hampers productivity. Anytime you leave a meeting, take down the action items and who they’re assigned to, and when they need to be done. If you won’t do something now, when will it be done?
FocusThe Pomodoro technique – spend 25 minutes on, and 5 minutes off. A time-bound work block allows you to focus with the reassurance that the timer will go off and you can switch if you need to. Oftentimes, you don’t need to switch when the timer goes off because you’re in the flow. It invites people to induce momentum when it isn’t happening organically.

How should managers think about tracking and measuring tasks?

Measuring and tracking tasks is not the same as tracking productivity – the tasks are what you do, and productivity is how you do it. Tasks should have their own system for tracking and managing.

Whatever you use, be consistent – we’re system agnostic, but the key thing is to be consistent in what you use. This reduces the mental burden of communication—if you don’t know where urgent notifications come from, you’ll be distracted looking for them across various mediums. Having a clear protocol creates the freedom to focus.

Model the behavior you want to see – oftentimes, the leader is the worst culprit of inconsistency; don’t say one thing and do another. Whatever you do as the leader is the system, so commit to a system that’s realistic. For example, don’t say you’ll use email and then text employees urgent tasks. 

Effective 1:1s

What should you cover in a 1:1? What’s the benefit of good 1:1’s?

Use the CAMPS framework to gauge engagement – these are the five brain cravings people have at work. They allow you to diagnose what’s going on with your employees and how you can help them. When someone’s engagement is high at work, it’s likely because all of these dimensions are being met: 

  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Meaning 
  • Progress
  • Social Inclusion 

If you don’t talk about CAMPS in 1:1s, they won’t come up – few employees will approach you and say they don’t feel inclusion or meaning. As a manager, you might receive signals about these all the time if you know to look for them. A 1:1 is a safe place to check in on these signals.

The 1:1 is a regularly scheduled temperature check – a 1:1 is a fantastic vehicle to ensure you’re checking in regularly and covering all of the components of good management (coaching, feedback, prioritization, etc.).

What are the proper logistics arrangements for 1:1s? 

Choose a length you can commit to consistently showing up to uninterrupted – start with a cadence and length you know you can handle, because every time you move or cancel it, you’re sending a signal that the employee is not high on your priority list. 

Ask for the employee’s preferences on length and cadence – preferences differ, and you want to cater to them within reason. If an employee is asking for more than you can commit to, you might have to arrange for someone else they can talk to. 

Hold 1:1s in a private space – people won’t share their real thoughts and feelings if they’re in a public place. Be wary of the communal kitchen 1:1, if you want out of an office, go to a coffee shop or on a walk. Even being within eyesight of your colleagues will affect how candid it is. 

Mix up modalities if you’re remote – get some face-to-face time because there’s so much information that you get from seeing someone’s face and body language. Mix it up if the employee wants to, but for conversations with heavier emotions take their opinion into account; sometimes it’s more comfortable to be on the phone walking around. 

Use a shared doc to capture notes – the format doesn’t matter and you don’t need to capture everything. When an important issue comes up, call out that you’re taking note of it, and the employee will feel heard and have the certainty that it’s captured, out of their brain, and written down. You both now have a place to go back to it for accountability. 

What should the balance of discussing ongoing work and tasks vs. providing feedback and coaching be?

Have separate check-ins about the work and about the person – this is the ideal setup. This division ensures you get to coaching and feedback topics. The conversations might cross-pollinate, but having these designations helps keep you honest. You might hold person-focused 1:1s on a less frequent basis. 

If you don’t hold separate check-ins, make space for conversation about the person – it’s really easy to burn up a 1:1 talking about tactical items without getting to CAMPS. 

What can managers do to nurture engagement and performance in a personalized way? 

Do a CAMPS diagnosis and tag/name issues – it can be as simple as just asking what the source of the discontent is. You want to identify the root of the issue and synthesize the problem.

Engagement and Performance Boosters
ProblemSolutionHow it helps
CertaintyHave a shared doc or set of notes in 1:1Capturing issues that are raised conveys that you value their words. It encourages follow-up and assuages the anxiety of a problem that’s only in thoughts.
1. “What’s one thing you’d like more guidance on?” 
2. “What’s one thing you want more freedom with?”
This helps find the right balance of freedom and guidance that leads to satisfaction with autonomy. No one wants to feel adrift or micromanaged.
MeaningAttach impact statements to positive feedbackLink praise to the outcome of a job well done. E.g., “Great job on formatting that presentation, it really makes a difference in how our clients view us to see something so well organized.”
ProgressBring up wins, learnings, and successes in the face of failure or stagnationIt identifies and acknowledges hidden progress and impact for employees who feel like they’re working hard but getting nowhere.
Social InclusionAsk who they’d like to know better in the company and be a linkAn intro can help them create a network inside the company beyond yourself.

Don’t be afraid of surfacing obstacles you can’t solve – the obstacles are there whether you ask about them or not. It’s better to clear the air, but don’t feel like you have to meet the employee’s problems where they’re at. It will help you understand the motivations of the employee but the manager’s job is not to fix every CAMPS issue.


What are the most important pieces to get right? 

Work with individuals to solve problems, not for them – the goal of good management is to develop a team with the skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to get to the right solution in as many situations as possible. 

Model the behavior you want to encourage – whether it’s giving feedback, receiving it, tracking tasks, or time awareness, try to set an example that individual contributors can look to for their cues on how to act.

What are common pitfalls? 

Avoiding problems you might not be able to solve – if an employee has an issue, grievance, or concern, it exists and will have an impact whether you address it or not. Even if you can’t fix something, there’s value in the employee knowing that you heard them and took note.

Focusing on tactical items while ignoring the person – it’s really easy for managers to limit their communications to items related to ongoing work. Make the space to talk about CAMPS and elements of the employee experience that can affect their engagement and performance.

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