“Can you come in and fix this guy?”
That seems to be the real request behind some of my coaching engagements, yet that’s not what coaching is. Though I may see amazing progress from coaching an individual employee, any improvements will be really hard to sustain.
When the coach leaves but the boss doesn’t change, performance problems will likely continue. It’s the boss, who lives and breathes with this person and sees their behavior every day, who needs to manage the individual on an ongoing basis and to correct issues when they appear.
Here is a guideline managers can use when deciding how to address issues with individual employees:
Mandated issue: When an employee breaks a company rule, whether to do with quality assurance, safety, working hours or something else, the manager needs to tell the person right away that they must follow the correct procedure. This is a black and white thing and the interaction should have relatively low emotional content.
Single incident: In a meeting with employees, let’s say an individual lost their cool and didn’t handle a disagreement appropriately. After the meeting, it’s important for the boss to take that person aside to have a short conversation about the incident, e.g., “I noticed that the way you responded to that question could have caused difficulties with the rest of the team. Let’s talk about it.” By dealing with the issue right away, it’s still top of mind and the person will be more open to feedback.
Apparent pattern: Let’s say the boss then hears from someone else that the employee behaved similarly in another meeting, and then the boss sees the same behavior again. At this point the boss might say something like, “I brought this up after the X, Y Z meeting a few weeks ago and you committed to staying calm, instead of letting your anger show in a way that stops other people from communicating. This is the third time it’s happening. It is a pattern. Let’s talk about this. What is frustrating you?”
The boss can assert, “I don’t want to see this behavior again. It’s not acceptable. What else can you put in place to reduce your frustration? Let’s talk about this again in a week and see where we’re at.” Work out a solution together and then check in week later to see how the solution is going. Remember to document this in a file in case you need to refer to specifics later.
Persistent pattern: If the employee still hasn’t come around and hasn’t implemented the solution they committed to, the boss might say something like, “We discussed this before and you said you were going to fix it. I’m worried now that I can’t trust you. I’m concerned about how this issue is affecting your relationship with me, and your relationship with others inside and outside the team.” Based on the company’s HR policies, this might be when the manager needs to put the situation in writing to the employee.
Disciplinary action: This step will depend again on a company’s HR policies, whether there is a set progression from verbal warning to written warning to disciplinary intervention. Talk to your HR partner about performance improvement plans and the best way to proceed.
The first thing an HR partner will ask is whether you’ve already spoken to the employee about the behavior, and whether it’s been a persistent pattern. That’s why a manager must document conversations in all these stages. Another best practice for each conversation is to ask the employee to summarize back what they’ve heard and what they’re going to do.
When managers use these techniques and do not shirk from their responsibility to address performance issues, problems don’t grow out of proportion. Then whether it’s time for the annual performance review or it’s time to take disciplinary action, employees won’t be surprised. The boss took action, instead of letting things slide or asking someone else to “fix this guy.”