Engaged! Tip#5 - Coaching a Difficult Employee

Take immediate action. The longer you wait to confront a negative behavior, the harder it will be to change. It does not take long before the inappropriate behavior becomes a habit and habits are very hard to break. Once you have determined that a negative pattern of behavior exists, take action.

Give feedback privately. Prior to beginning the discussion, you should make sure that you have a private location to meet. Take steps to ward off any interruptions. If at all possible, hold the meeting one-on-one. Only in rare instances is a third party necessary. (If the employee is to be terminated or is unwilling to cooperate, you may need a third party, such as a union representative or a human resources representative.)

Remain calm. If you have ever driven home from work saying, “Now why did I say that?” chances are you may have regretted giving feedback to an employee when you were mad. If you are angry or emotional, postpone the discussion until you are feeling more in control. Remember, communication is permanent. Do not lose control of the discussion or say something that may later come back to haunt you.

Be consistent. Do what you say you are going to do. If you tell employees you are going to do something if their inappropriate behavior does not change, do what you say you are going to do. If employees do not feel you are going to take action, they may see no need to change.

Correct behaviors selectively. Do not use a correcting session to point out all the negative things that you have seen over time. If you coach properly, you should only be dealing with one or two inappropriate behaviors at a time. If you do not have ongoing communication with your employees, you may start to generate a laundry list of behaviors you want to discuss. The laundry list will have little impact and will likely get thrown out in the wash! Our general rule of thumb is, “If it’s more than two, they think it’s you!” Meaning, if you do bring out your long list of inappropriate behaviors, after about point five or six, the employee begins to think, “Why bother to even come to work? I must not be doing anything right. I never thought my boss liked me anyway. She’s always picking on me!” 

Remain positive. Keep your thoughts positive. Help the employee identify what is causing the problem, and what the employee will do to help resolve the problem. Remember, the goal of this discussion is to make the employee more successful. Only in rare instances is an employee not willing to grow by changing negative behaviors.

Coaching Discussion Model

The purpose of the coaching discussion is to redirect the employee’s behavior. You want the employee to stop inappropriate behavior and start demostrating appropriate behavior. It is a two-way process, a discussion. The intended purpose is for the employee to be engaged in a discussion as well. In fact, the employee should be talking more than the supervisor or the manager. Using the following six steps of the Coaching Discussion Model will make your coaching discussions effective.

Step One: Help the Employee See the Existing Problem

This is the most important step of the entire coaching discussion. If the employee does not agree there is a problem, then the manager actually has two problems to deal with: 1) the inappropriate behavior and 2) the employee not thinking the inappropriate behavior is a problem.

Step One is a difficult area for managers. Many lack a feeling of competence in this area. Without preparation, this beginning can be difficult; therefore, many managers want to just skip over this step. But, if the employee does not agree there is a problem, he or she will probably lack the motivation to improve behavior.

According to Ferdinand F. Fournies in Coaching For Improved Performance, there are only two reasons that will convince an employee that a problem exists: 1) if the employee understands the results or outcome of what he or she is doing wrong or 2) if the employee perceives the negative consequences to himself or herself if there is no change in behavior. The results or outcome referred to in the first statement are the things that happen because of the employee’s non-performance. The types of questions we could ask to gain agreement in this area include:

“What is/are the result(s) of this behavior (non-performance)?”
“What impact does this behavior have on other employees/departments?”
“What would happen if all employees did this behavior?”
“What would happen if I (the supervisor/manager) ignored this behavior indefinitely?”
“Do you know how many times you have done this behavior in the last _______?”
“What impact does this behavior have on our customers?”
“What credibility do you feel I have with my boss when I allow this behavior to continue?”
“I am puzzled why you don’t perceive this as a problem, so can you elaborate?”

If the employee is still unwilling to admit there is a problem by answering any of the above questions, you may need to move to the second stage of questioning.

“What will happen if you continue with this behavior?”

When the employee responds with, “You could write me up or suspend me,” you can then respond with, “You are right. And if you continued with this behavior after I documented this problem or suspended you, what else could I do?”

A second question you may try is, “Do you think I can decide to let you continue this behavior?”

If the employee states that allowing the negative behavior to continue is not your choice, you can respond with, “You are right! What do you think you can do differently so we no longer have this problem?”

If the employee states that you can decide to allow the behavior to continue indefinitely, you can respond with, “You are incorrect. As a manager, I am responsible for seeing that (the area of concern you are discussing) is not a problem in our department/company.”

The employee’s comments could activate some of the following responses:

“You could suspend, demote, inhibit my promotion, put something in my personnel file, fire me…” Your response could be, “You are right, because I need someone in that position who will do (describe the behavior) what needs to be done.”

“You could do anything you want, because you are the boss.” Your response could be, “No, I cannot. Your choice of behavior limits my behavior.”

Some of these questions and responses in this second round sound threatening. Well, you are right. If the consequences are realistic–that the employee could be suspended or fired–and if he or she is unwilling to change his or her behavior, it is important that the employee understands the consequences of his or her own behavior.

It may be difficult to get agreement that a problem exists. The following eight possibilities will help you evaluate the situation more thoroughly.

  1. You are not dealing with a behavior related to performance.
  2. What you are dealing with really is not that significant.
  3. It is important, but you have not correctly identified all of the negative consequences.
  4. You are trying to get the employee to realize unrealistic or hypothetical consequences.
  5. You are not using thought transmission, but you are verbalizing the consequences instead of the consequences being verbalized by the employee.
  6. In the past relationship, you have never done what you said you were going to do and have limited credibility with the employee.
  7. There is a positive consequence for the employee to continue the negative behavior.
  8. The employee has psychological problems too severe to manage.

Step Two: Clarify the Cause of the Problem

Once the employee clearly sees that there is a problem, you can begin to ask “why.” The employee may have an idea why the problem is occurring; the employee may know something you don’t know. Do not assume that you already know the cause of the problem. Make sure you ask for input and ideas. It is more likely that the person doing the job will have an understanding of why the job is not being done right. This person is also more likely to have good solutions to the problem. As a manager, you just need to ask–and then listen.

Step Three: Mutually Discuss Alternative Solutions

Once you have gained agreement that a problem exists and you have clarified the cause of the problem, you are ready to move to solutions. You can say to the employee, “Now that we agree there is a problem, what do you think you can do differently to solve the problem?” Make sure to focus on the word differently, because if the employee keeps on doing the same behaviors, he or she will keep getting the same results. It is important that the manager lets the employee generate solutions. For example, if the inappropriate behavior was errors in a document, then we would want to ask the employee what he or she thought could be done differently to produce less typos. The employee might reply,

“I could proofread each page.”
“I could have someone else proofread each page.”
“I could run the document through Spell Check.”

With each response, acknowledge the good ideas. Ask, “What else could you do?” Remember, you are trying to generate viable alternatives. If the employee cannot think of any ideas, you need to be prepared to ask questions to help steer him or her down the right path. For example, you could ask,

“Would it be beneficial to spend time proofreading each page?”
“Would it help you to have someone else proofread each page?”

Step Four: Mutually Select an Alternative(s)

Do not waste time in Step Three debating which alternative is feasible. If you criticize an alternative an employee shares, the employee will stop sharing. In Step Four, you are now ready to pick an alternative. Once again, the best method to select an alternative is by asking questions. Ask the employee which alternative he or she thinks will work best–and why? Let the employee think it through and let the employee pick the solution.

Step Five: Follow Up Completion of Appropriate Actions

Make sure to follow up with employees to see how they are doing. Many managers make the mistake of not following up to ensure that the agreed-upon action has been taken. The manager may be too busy to check or may trust the employee is going to change his or her behavior. The employee will often change the behavior immediately after the performance improvement discussion. But, because there is no recognition for the improved performance, the employee slips back to inappropriate behaviors. Two months later, the manager sees the negative behavior again and assumes that there has been no change. If the employee has not modified his or her behavior, the new problem becomes that the employee did not do what he or she agreed to do.

Step Six: Recognize Achievement When It Occurs

This step can be a tough one. Let’s say your employee has been performing at the 50% level, but satisfactory performance is at 90%. You provide coaching and during the next week the employee raises his or her performance to 60%. You think to yourself, “It is a little better, but he or she still has a long way to go.” And, so you do not want to say anything about the improvement for fear that the employee will feel the little improvement is good enough.

If you want the improvement to continue, the key is to recognize it–no matter how small! Recognize the employee’s progress. Then, ask the employee what can be done to bring the next round of improvement to an even higher level.

This model is successful in handling the majority of employee-related problems. If you adequately plan for the discussion, you will have positive results.  


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