5 Tips for Coaching Difficult Employees

Coaching difficult employees can be one of the most challenging aspects of management for leaders. Issues with difficult employees may have only been partially addressed in the past and a new leader inherits the responsibility to continue the discussions when he/she comes on board.   In other cases, difficult employees were never made aware of the issue in the first place. Even if discussed in the past, the issue may have been couched or not resolved by the difficult employee so it is now up to the new leader to decide how to broach the issue and what to do about it. Here are 5 tips for coaching difficult employees in the aim of resolving the issue whether it is performance or personality related:

1)   Be specific and base your feedback on observations.

2)   State an expectation of success.  Communicate faith that the person can satisfactorily correct the issue.

3)   Seek to understand. Don’t assume you know the cause of the issue(s). Use the discussion to ask questions and to get on the same page.

4)   Set clear expectations for what needs to change with a specific timetable.

5)   Set a follow up to assess progress and to determine if the issue is being satisfactorily resolved.

It is hard to give and receive critical feedback.  You will be able to tell a lot based on the employee’s reaction. Were they open to hearing the feedback or were they defensive? A certain amount of defensiveness is a normal reaction. But you want to see a desire, a hunger to address the issue and get on with things. What you don’t want to see is an unwillingness to take responsibilities or try a different approach.

Make yourself available as a coach. Let the person know that you are in this together and to come to you with questions or as a sounding board. Again, you want him/her to take initiative but you want to convey a sense of partnership as well.  This is a great opportunity to show humanity and perhaps share a success story of a time you were struggling at work and purposefully took on new habits or a new mindset shift successfully. This demonstrates a genuine belief in development versus an unrealistic expectation of perfection.

Finally, trust yourself.  Coaching difficult employees is not easy. If after coaching and planning, the situation has not been resolved you may need to make the difficult decision about whether or not this person is right for the job. On the other hand, if the person successfully makes the changes agreed upon, it is important to leave the issue squarely in the past. The person should not feel like there is a stigma against him/her as a difficult employee.  And give yourself a pat on the back for the effective coaching you provided!