The Achilles Heel of Coaching

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Have you ever had a situation where you or a colleague repeatedly talked with an employee about improving his or her performance, and nothing changed? Or the changes made were only temporary? If so, you might be wondering: What went wrong? How come the employee doesn’t get it? The answer likely rests with the fact that you failed to get the employee to recognize and agree that he or she needs to improve and change – a critical yet often poorly executed step in the coaching process.

Coaching is a technique that can be used by people at all organizational levels, from senior leaders to first-line supervisors, as well as team leaders. It is also just as applicable in traditionally managed organizations as it is in those structured around teams. However, much confusion exists over what coaching is and isn’t. I define coaching as an interpersonal process between a manager and an employee in which the manager helps the employee redirect his or her behavior or performance while maintaining mutual trust.

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Coaching differs from feedback, although feedback is part of the coaching process. Feedback is given by a manager in response to a specific event or situation, while coaching focuses on a pattern of behavior. Examples include missing several deadlines in a short time period despite being reminded that meeting deadlines is important, continuing to arrive late for work after being told tardiness is not acceptable, and continuing to interrupt others despite receiving feedback that such behavior isn’t appropriate.

Coaching is not chewing out, taking to task, or threatening employees to try to improve their performance. Those tactics can work, but the results often are worse than the original problem. Specifically, employees become outwardly submissive and inwardly rebellious and do nothing more or less than what’s asked.

In general, a coaching meeting should take place only after an employee clearly understands what is expected and has received feedback at least once that his or her performance is not what it could or should be. However, in some cases, certain significant events may trigger a coaching meeting before they develop into a pattern of behavior. For example, a manufacturer I worked with decided that any safety violation – no matter how minor – would be addressed in a coaching discussion and, if significant enough, could lead directly to formal discipline.

The Coaching Process

Coaching involves these elements:

  • A two-way dialogue
  • A series of interdependent steps or objectives
  • Specific coaching skills
  • Mutual satisfaction

The coaching process has two primary areas of focus: helping an employee recognize the need to improve his or her performance, and developing an employee’s commitment to taking steps to improve performance permanently.

Here are the 7 main steps in the coaching process:

  1. Build interpersonal trust
  2. Open the discussion
  3. Agree on the issue
  4. Consider possible solutions
  5. Agree on an action plan
  6. Manage excuses
  7. Close the meeting

While all of these steps are important, the most critical one is getting an employee to recognize and agree that there’s a need to improve his or her performance (Step 3). Moreover, the step is equally important whether an employee has a specific performance problem or he or she is an average performer who could do even better. Without an agreement, there’s little likelihood that any improvement will occur or that it will be permanent.

Headshot of Ken Phillips
Ken Phillips

Ken Phillips delivers all programs and workshops in his signature style: professional, engaging, and approachable.

Ken is the founder and CEO of Phillips Associates and the creator and chief architect of the Predictive Learning Analytics™ (PLA) learning evaluation methodology. He has more than 30 years of experience designing learning instruments and assessments and has authored more than a dozen published learning instruments. Ken also regularly speaks to the Association for Talent Development (ATD) groups, university classes, and corporate L&D groups. Since 2008, he has presented at the ATD International Conference and, since 2013, at the annual Training Conference and Expo on topics related to the measurement and evaluation of learning.

Before pursuing a Ph.D. in the combined fields of organizational behavior and educational administration at Northwestern University, Ken held management positions with two colleges and two national corporations. Also, he has written articles that have appeared in TD Magazine, Training Industry Magazine, and Training Today, and is a contributing author to five books in the L&D field.

Ken earned the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP, now CPTD) credential from ATD in 2006 as a pilot pioneer and re-certified in 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018.

Connect with Ken on LinkedIn.

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