Coachable and non-coachable behaviors

Helping problem employees

Robert Bogue

by Robert Bogue on 5/29/2014

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Date Revised:
5/29/2014


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Dealing with problem employees is always difficult. Helping to convert a problem employee into a model employee is a lofty and rewarding goal, but not one without its challenges. Converting even the most challenging employees to the most valuable is simply a matter of changing their behaviors. It's simple--that is, when the behavior is something that you can coach out of the employee. Learning how to focus your energies on behaviors that are coachable and ignoring those that are not (that you can accept) is an important part of converting your problem employees into your star players.

Non-coachable behaviors

One of the most frequent reasons for separation in our divorce-oriented culture is that, "he/she just wouldn't change." We all believe that we can coach anything out of anyone. We believe that everything that another person does that we don't like can be changed. Some people enter marriages this way. They believe that they will fix their broken spouse. Sometimes spouses don't believe they're broken and don't want to be fixed.

Of course, when we take this to the extreme, we realize that we can't prevent certain behaviors. Try making someone not eat. Try making them not sleep. No sane person can believe that they can prevent employees from sleeping, although they may be able to prevent them from sleeping on the job.

Similarly, employees exhibit behaviors that that can't be changed. Realizing that those behaviors are unique for each person and aren't always obvious is the key to success in dealing with them.

I once had an employee who couldn't make it to work at 8AM. It didn't matter how many times we discussed it, how often he agreed to get better at it, or even how many times I explained that it was threatening his employment. His behavior of coming in late wasn't something that I could change. I spoke with his next employer after a few years, when that employer became a client. They shared that this wasn't a behavior that they had had any luck at changing, either.

Another employee wouldn't ever complete commitments to others in the organization. This person would only get 80% done, forcing others to come behind him and push things through to completion. I tried limiting his tasks to only the essential ones, but ultimately his personality wouldn't allow him to stay focused on a few detailed items. His need to change tasks wasn't a behavior that was coachable.

Deciding what is important

Before moving on to what is coachable behavior, it's important to evaluate which of the non-coachable behaviors are important enough reasons to let a good employee go. In the first case, where the employee was perpetually late, it wasn't a good enough reason. Although it was annoying when he was needed to solve an early morning problem, it wasn't worth losing a good coder.

In the second situation, there was no choice. The behavior couldn't be changed and it caused so much disruption that it made him have an overall negative impact on the organization. Unfortunately, at that time, the organization wasn't able to make the changes that would have been required to allow him to be valuable within his existing role. In this case, it was necessary to help him find a new position.

Making the organization change

As I implied in the last section, sometimes it's best to have the organization change to support a behavior that isn't coachable. That can mean simply changing your expectations of the person. Subtle changes in what they are asked to do or in the approach to assignments can mean the difference between a behavior being a real barrier to the person's success and a successful and happy employee.

In other cases, it means a more dramatic shift of roles. The person may need to be reassigned to a different unit or a completely different role. These more dramatic measures can and do work. Employees who exhibit behaviors that don't work in their current roles can be quite effective in new ones.

In summary, the first step is determining if the behavior is important. The second step is trying to change the environment, where appropriate, so that the behavior becomes a non-issue.

For a practical example, I have a physical defect that many people share. My eyes are unable to focus on things at a distance. This can be a big problem when I try to drive. In fact, it's a big enough problem that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles won't let me drive without glasses. Glasses take my physical defect and eliminate the problem. Changing the employee's position in the organization can have the same effect: It can eliminate the negative consequences of the undesirable behavior.

Coachable behaviors

Some behaviors are coachable. They don't require reevaluating the employee's roles, position, or group. All they require is some work on your part to create an environment where the employee can feel safe to make the changes to his or her behavior in order to become more productive.

The key to long term success with coachable behaviors is creating an environment where the employee feels safe to make the change. For different people, you create this perception in different ways, but there are a few common components:

  • Demonstrate your compassion for others:  Make sure to support them when you ask employees in the organization to make a change. Allow them the time to change, and prevent any attacks on the new behaviors that are forming. In other words, be consistent in your support of everyone. People don't hear that they are safe. They feel it.
  • Make working with them a priority: We've all go too much to do. But when people are honestly trying to make a change, your continuous support will help them realize that you're there to help them make the change, not beat them over the head when they are unable to do so.
  • Expose your struggles: People like to believe that you've been there before. They like to know that they're not alone. Help them to understand that we all have behaviors that are holding us back.
  • Believe in their success: Nothing will prevent a change faster than telling employees that you don't believe that they can change. You have to believe in their ability to change and help them to believe in themselves, too.

I've seen my fair share of non-coachable behaviors. However, I've seen far more behaviors that are coachable. From programming habits to communication styles and beyond, I'm always amazed at the things that people are able to change about themselves when they feel safe to make the changes.

Making the call

Perhaps the most difficult thing in coaching is deciding which behaviors are coachable and which aren't. Dozens of times I thought behaviors were coachable, and they turned out to be non-coachable behaviors. You'll have to strike your own balance between optimism (in believing the behavior is coachable) and pragmatism (in realizing that it may not be). You're likely to spend a lot of energy making that decision, but it is well worth it. Good luck!


Topic: Development

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