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Warning! Coaching Won’t Resolve These 5 Problems

Lately, more and more leadership development, employee feedback, and general management is being outsourced from actual business decision-makers to Human Resources business partners and professional coaches. But coaching isn’t necessarily the answer for every employee who’s not working out.

Often the employees who need coaching the most are the ones who are the least likely to ask for help, take direction, or change their behavior. That’s because it’s hard for people to take in crucial guidance if they’re tin-eared, self-unaware, and unattuned to what’s going on with the other humans around them.

Five Cases of Failed Coaching

Here are five real-life situations where no amount of coaching will make much productive difference unless significant structural changes are also put into place — or the individuals experience a crisis or other transformative event. Note that combinations of these characteristics exist, too:

  1. Self-designated “perfect employees” think whatever they’re doing is great. When anything goes wrong, it’s always other people who are the problem — because they’re either misguided or unsophisticated. When an issue comes up, these “irreproachable” types believe that it’s because others didn’t understand the tools, resources, or support they needed to be able to give their best — not because of anything they could’ve done, or should’ve done better. They’re genuinely surprised when others label them as self-involved — they think that’s what good for them really is what’s good for the company, and what’s not good for them isn’t good for the company. These individuals were often extraordinarily successful early in their career, or happened to be very highly regarded at their last job.
  2. Some folks are all for change — so long as it means everybody else, not them. They talk about necessary change but don’t realize that their own behavior is a crucial part of the problem. If they’re coached about “better” ways to manage interactions with their team members or colleagues, they don’t pay attention; they believe the correction comes from a lack of understanding or appreciation of themselves and their talent. That’s because “their way” — as rough as it may be — is what has made them successful in the past.
  3. Some challenging employees wear their hearts on their sleeves. Their emotions — which often include fear, worry, and anxiety — run so close to the surface that coaching alone can’t prop up their inadequate self-management. These folks often need excessively explicit direction, follow-up, and ongoing attention from their management. No matter what happens, they only behave half reasonably if their manager makes clear that they’re absolutely crucial to the success of the operation; otherwise, they’re not sure that they matter, so they get anxious and insecure and act out all the time.
  4. Iconoclasts are proud of being whatever way they are, regardless of how they make other people feel. They actually say things like, “Well, that’s the way I am.” They know they have a technical or functional skill that’s in high demand, so they don’t think they really need to bother changing; they believe they were hired specifically for “being the way they are” or that they have the corporate equivalent of tenure: as long as they don’t commit a crime, they’re safe.
  5. Individuals who’ve been treated inconsistently by their management often become hostile to change. They assume that every change initiative is just a flavor-of-the-month program. They don’t see why they need to bother, since they expect the new initiative to fail, so they give the coach a little lip service and wait for the storm to blow over.

Stop the Game Playing

Catch any of these folks relatively early in their careers, and you can make a significant positive difference with compassionate, consistent supervision. But the longer they’ve been playing these games, the harder it is to persuade them that it’s worth shifting.

Consider what kind of developmental investments you prefer to make, with the best chance of payoff. One practical approach is to teach the fundamentals of your business, so employees like these can see the context and understand the motivations for change. It can also be effective to conduct ongoing 360-degree reviews and let the data make the case that no one wants to work with these individuals.

It’s always possible, of course, for coaching to make a significant difference. But for an unattuned employee, the coaching must be very straightforward, include a detailed understanding of the situation, and provide concrete follow-up by someone the individual recognizes as an authority figure.

Or, instead of focusing on someone who’s practically uncoachable, try hiring a coach for their boss, to help the senior person stay the course on a rigorous program of feedback and corrective action to determine whether there’s a legitimate chance of success for this person in this organization.

Onward and upward,


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