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Performance Management

Toughest employees to coach — and 6 steps to get through to them today



Of all the employees you’ll ever have, those who think they aren’t doing anything wrong could be the toughest employees to coach.

Getting through to them – that there’s a problem and it’s imperative they fix it – can be as difficult as guessing what’s next on Succession.

Why? Because in their eyes everything is great, so nothing needs to change. On the other hand, you see performance, and possibly discipline, issues that need immediate attention.

You, toughest employees need results

“You achieve results through others,” said Marty Brounstein, in his book Managing Difficult Employees: Solving Performance Problems. “So you must coach them to improve behaviors that limit their success.”

That’s why it’s important for HR leaders or front-line managers to intervene early in performance issues. You want them to shake poor behaviors, embrace better approaches to their work and excel in your workplace.

Here’s a plan of attack that helps reluctant employees:

  • see there’s a problem that needs to be fixed
  • recognize solutions to the issue, and
  • take steps to resolve it.

1. Prepare yourself

Dealing with tough situations is frustrating. Leaders and managers can almost always anticipate employees who are being called out will be defensive and point blame to another person or process.

That’s why you want to manage the conversation from the get-go.

Schedule it when you’re calm. Set an easy tone and agenda, highlighting the points you must make. Plan how you’ll express concern for employees, their performance and their careers.

2. Describe the problem

When you meet, get right to the point. Avoid small talk. Use clear language that focuses on the behaviors that need coaching and the results you’ll expect. Don’t over-generalize or refer to personality traits.

For instance, avoid: “All of your work has been sloppy lately because you can’t focus on one thing at a time.”

Instead, say: “Your last five reports have had at least three errors that caused confusion and re-work.”

3. Reinforce

At this point, many employees will become defensive, blaming other people, processes or circumstances for the failure that you’ve brought to the table.

You don’t have to argue your point. With people who don’t recognize their faults, it’s better to focus on reinforcing the standards — what you, the department or company expect. It’s especially helpful if you have those goals or expectations in writing to review — perhaps referring to their job descriptions, or documented procedures or failures.

This way, you can more easily shift gears to what will be done right, rather than what you say was done wrong.

Once you’ve laid it out, ask employees to confirm that they know and respect those expectations.

4. Make a plan

If you tell employees who struggle to recognize the issue exactly how you want them to fix it, they’ll likely defy you again. They won’t see the merit in your solution (or any solution handed to them, for that matter).

Instead, ask them, “What will you do to improve on this?” Giving them some control of the solution – and they must be pressed to create one – helps ensure they’ll institute it.

Set the goal

Develop a reasonable time line for changes. In some cases – say, for safety’s sake – it might be immediately, while others will allow for time.

You can either explain how you’ll monitor progress toward the new or re-visited goals. Or you can explain your expectations for regular updates from the employee.

Document it

When you document the issue and conversation for HR records, note precise language that was used.

Avoid general statements. Note the goal, when it must be met and the consequences for not reaching it – or reward for doing it.

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