Coaching Difficult Employees

The Coaching Discussion Model

Business Woman listening to employee - coaching - Peter Barron Stark Companies On Tuesday, we shared some tips on how to address employee issues when they occur. Our goal was to help you get the employee to acknowledge inappropriate behaviors and come up with a plan for what he/she will do differently in the future. Today, we’ll give you some guidelines for addressing more challenging, reoccurring behaviors… issues that you have addressed in the past, but the problem hasn’t been resolved. This is where the coaching discussion comes in.

The purpose of the coaching discussion is to redirect the employee’s behavior. You want the employee to stop the inappropriate behavior and start demonstrating appropriate behavior. It is a two-way process, a discussion. The intended purpose is for the employee to be engaged in the 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: Recognize the Employee’s Positive Contribution

Sometimes the most difficult employee is also a major contributor to the team’s success. Start the coaching discussion off on a positive note. Recognize the employee’s successes. For example:

“Thanks for meeting with me today, Monica. I’d like to talk to you about some concerns I have regarding the accuracy of your work. On a positive note, our customers love working with you. Twice in the last week, I’ve received favorable comments about your interactions with customers. Today I’d like to talk about some errors in your loan applications.”

Step Two: 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.

This step is a difficult area for managers. Many lack a feeling of competence in this area. Without preparation, beginning the coaching discussion 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.

After recognizing the employee’s success, begin by clearly defining the problem. For example:

“Three times in the last two weeks, your applications have been returned for additional information.”

Step Three: Ask Questions to Gain Agreement that a Performance Problem Exists

To get the employee involved in the discussion, ask questions to gain agreement that a performance problem exists. For example:

“Do you see your work being returned for errors or omissions as being a problem?”

Below are some examples of questions to ask the employee to help him/her understand the impact of their negative behavior follow:

  • “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?”
  • “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 might include:

“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.”

If you think that some of these questions and responses in this second round sound threatening, 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.

Step Four: 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 read the document one final time to ensure accuracy.”

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

Step Five: Agree on Actions to Correct the Problem

Once the employee understands the problem and resulting impact, and has generated solutions, mutually agree on what actions will be taken. For example:

“You’ve agreed that you will first proof your own work, then ask a co-worker to review your work before you submit your documents for review.”

Step Six: Discuss Positive/Negative Consequences for Changing/Not Changing the Behavior

“It sounds like you have a good plan for checking your work to ensure that it is complete and error-free. I am hoping that your solution resolves this concern. I think you’ve got a workable plan. Should this problem continue, however, we will meet again. I am committed to upholding high standards and need all team members to produce complete, error-free applications.”

Step Seven: Review Progress/Achievement on an On-Going Basis

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 Eight: Recognize Effort and Achievement

If you want the employee to be motivated to change behaviors, 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. However, if the employee behavior does not improve after coaching, it may be time to share them with a competitor. Using the model of train them, coach them, and if that does not work, share them, will ensure that you have a strong, competent and accountable team.

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