UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

How you can become an effective coach to boost performance

April 14, 2011 By Heather Harreld

businesscoachBy Melodie Howard, Program Director UNC Executive Development

Problem employees are the bane of everyone’s existence in an organization. They cause productivity to plummet and damage morale. Because few people enjoy conflict, managers often go to extremes to avoid addressing the problem behavior. It seems inevitable that it winds up in the HR department. Unfortunately, by the time it does, the damage has already been done and the clean-up can take months.

When HR effectively coaches managers to deal with problem employee behaviors, the organization benefits in the following ways: :

•Increased employee skills so managers can delegate more tasks, allowing managers to focus more on managerial responsibilities like planning.

•Improved productivity by helping people work smarter.

•Better retention; employee loyalty and motivation are improved when their supervisors take time with them to help them improve their skills.

•More effective use of company resources; coaching costs less than formal training.

Coaching is simply moving valuable people from where they are to where they want or need to be. ome of the most effective coaches are also exemplary models—they “walk the talk.” As it applies to addressing problem employees, HR and talent management professionals can help managers identify the problem behavior, analyze it, develop approaches to discuss it with the employee, create an employee “contract” to address the behavior, and in general, develop a culture that is supportive of open dialogue.   Following are 4 steps that HR can take to coach managers to deal effectively with problem employee behaviors.

Step 1: Help the Manager Identify the Problem Behavior

Good coaches ask good questions. Ask some variation of the following questions to help the manager articulate the problem behavior (consider using some of the types of problem behaviors as a framework):

• “Let’s focus on the employee’s behavior. What types of behavior is she exhibiting?”

• “Has this happened before? Was it a one-time incident or is it ongoing? When does it happen?”

• “What do you want her to stop doing? What do you want her to do differently?”

• “Have you discussed this behavior directly with the employee before?”

• “Have you or previous managers documented this behavior in any previous performance reviews?”

These questions will help managers identify the problem behavior. By asking if the behavior has happened before, you are establishing a baseline for the behavior. Managers also tend to focus on recent events, so asking if the behavior has happened before will allow them to focus on broader themes rather than one-time events. Finally, the last two questions will establish if there has been any communication with the employee regarding the behavior. There is a good chance the answer to both of these questions will be “no,” and for now, that’s fine. Your job is to coach the manager to acquire the skills and confidence to have a constructive conversation with the employee focused on behavior.

Step 2: Help the Manager Analyze the Behavior

Once you’ve helped the manager identify the problem behavior, analyze it. Ask the manager what he or she thinks the implications would be if nothing was done to address the problem behavior.

Is the problem behavior important enough to address? Encourage the manager to analyze the costs and benefits of addressing the behavior. If it is not affecting productivity or morale, addressing it may do more harm than good. Assess with the manager his or her patience with the employee in terms of giving the employee the time to change the behavior.

Ask the manager to consider how doing nothing about the problem may affect the rest of the departmental team, customers, clients and organizational profitability. Is it really an ingrained problem behavior that is affecting productivity and morale? Is it affecting organizational profitability? Is it endangering others? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, intervention is needed.

These questions should be considered at this stage:

• Is the employee aware that his or her job performance is not meeting expectations?

• If the employee is meeting job expectations, is it how he or she accomplishes it that’s the problem?

• Does the employee clearly understand his or her roles and responsibilities?

• Has the employee’s roles and responsibilities shifted in the recent past (e.g., promotion, new boss, different projects)? Is he or she having personal issues outside of work (e.g., death, divorce, illness)? Could these changes be affecting work performance and/or attitude?

Step 3: Develop Approaches on How to Discuss it with the Employee

Unless the behavior is clearly against the organization’s policies or code of conduct or is illegal, then it is most likely an opportunity to manage the employee towards better behavior. It is important to let the manager know that the objective of the discussion with the employee is not to terminate employment but to work together to address the problem behavior.

This reframes the meeting with the employee from “confrontation” to “conversation.” A conversation isn’t nearly as daunting to all parties involved.

Now that the manager can articulate the problem behavior, coach him or her in the ways to deliver behavioral feedback. Try role playing with the manager to analyze different approaches to take. Encourage the manager to provide concrete examples to help the employee identify the issue. Coach the manager to include how the employee’s behavior is affecting others (“Joe, you’ve been late to work four times last week. Other employees had to cover for you, causing them to get behind in their own work.”) and what the manager can do to help the situation. Be sure to discuss possible reactions the employee may have  like denial, embarrassment and defensiveness and how to handle them.

Step 4: Show the Manager How to Create a Contract with the Employee

The meeting with the employee to address the problem behavior will no doubt be emotional for both parties, and it may be easy to forget some of the desired outcomes and timeframes agreed to during the meeting. The manager should put this all in writing to help the employee and to establish a good legacy for future managers regarding the employee’s development.

Unfortunately, for many managers, writing is a stumbling block. Coach him in how good behavioral descriptors provide detail on the problem behavior, including instances when it occurred, and a recommendation on how to effectively address it.

Bad behavioral descriptors include:

  • You are just not a team player.
  • You are rude in meetings.
  • You are too negative.

These fail to provide the employee context and a solution.

Good behavioral descriptors include:

  • When bringing concerns forward about project implementation, you focus on what will not work.
  • In the future, I’d like for you to focus on bringing some positive aspects or potential solutions to these issues as well as your concerns.

This will help the employee identify when the behavior likely occurs and how to effectively address it.

Follow Up with the Manager: You’ve Been Coached

Follow-up with the manager to see if the employee’s behavior has improved and review the steps you and the manager took together to address the problem. Let them know that they were coached and learned valuable skills (you may want to recap them) that you hope they will apply to future employee behavioral problems. In fact, let them know you may call on them some day to help another manager through a similar situation—each one, teach one. This will not only help them become effective coaches, it will help move your entire organization toward a more developmental culture.