Dreading a Difficult Employee Performance Conversation? Try the Coach Approach.
“I just can’t seem to get through to her. She used to love her job, now she seems so unhappy. Even worse, I know she’s totally disengaged and it’s showing in her work. I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything. I think I will have to fire her.” It was a familiar conversation I’ve had with managers, an employee, once motivated and engaged, starts to fall short. Unfortunately, these situations don’t usually end well. After multiple attempts to reform the employee, which often include performance improvement plans and conversations with human resources, the employee is ultimately let go.
To compound the issue, many managers feel ill-equipped to handle these conversations. It can seem like the tools used to motive and change performance do the opposite. Even if short term results are achieved, poor behavior often resurfaces and, in many cases, worsens.
Time for a Different Approach
Although it may seem counterintuitive, setting aside your authority as a “manager” and stepping into the role of a coach can be the key to lasting employee engagement and motivation. In fact, it’s not just a tool to be used when employee performance is waning, developing a coach approach to leadership can head off employee issues before they start. Here’s how:
- Believe the employee has the answer - No one understands better what is happening with the employee than the employee. What’s more, they also know the solution. When you approach performance conversations by first letting the employee know you believe in their ability to solve the issue, it creates the trust that you plan to listen and work together to find a solution. It sets the conversation up to be collaborative and establishes your belief in their ability to resolve the problem.
- Have the hard conversation - Speak openly about your concerns, be direct but kind, describe the performance problem and include examples. Focus on the behavior that needs improvement, not on the person. Your goal is not to make the employee feel bad, but to work together to solve the problem. It is important that the employee has a clear understanding of the issue. Making light of the situation or avoiding a direct conversation because you assume the employee understands its significance or you are unwilling to have a difficult conversation is a typical mistake. No one enjoys these conversations, but being as frank as possible, without threatening or intimidating, is vital to finding a resolution.
- Listen to understand (be curious) - Next, ask for the employee's view of the situation. Follow up with open-ended questions from a place of curiosity, not judgment. Determine whether issues exist that limit the employee's ability to perform the task or accomplish the objectives. In this phase of the conversation, the employee is doing most of the talking. Your role is to listen to understand, not engage in back and forth dialog trying to convince or defend. This is where many managers fall short. They are more concerned with convincing the employee of the issue, rather than understanding what might really be happening. Again, your role is not to judge but rather to understand.
- Build trust - Managers must be willing to work alongside the employee to solve the issue or take the blame if something was done poorly. If there are outer blocks to performance improvement such as lack of training, time or resources work together to determine how to remove these barriers. Demonstrate your willingness to solve the problem together and your desire for the employee to succeed. It’s important to note that employee excuses or objections may occur at any point during the conversation. When this happens, rephrase any comment or statement that was perceived by the employee to be blaming or accusatory. Remember, this might be the first time the employee has engaged in a conversation about performance in this manner and old habits such as defending or placing blame will naturally surface. It’s your job to stay focused on the solution and developing the relationship.
- Develop a plan together - Begin to discuss possible solutions by asking the employee for their input and ideas. Explore ways the issue can be improved or corrected by encouraging the employee to identify several possible solutions. Avoid jumping in with your own ideas, unless the employee is unable to think of any. Push for specific details, not generalizations. Once the employee has outlined several possible solutions select the most appropriate together. Be as specific as possible, include the exact steps and the timeline in which they will be completed. Be sure the expected outcome is clear, with no room for interpretation.
- Build in accountability - Once the plan has been developed express your belief in the employee to achieve it and address how they will be held accountable. Champion their success but also be clear about consequences. Even in the step of accountability, your goal is buy-in and collaboration. Identify mutually agreed on actions, deliverables and when the next check-in will happen.
While taking the coach approach to employee performance is certainly more time consuming, it is fundamental in building and maintaining a self-motivated and engaged staff. Employees who respond well to this approach and improve their performance often become valued contributors. Furthermore, integrating a coach approach into your overall leadership style, not just as a tool for performance issues, will no doubt prevent problems from surfacing in the first place.