Recently, I have had several clients come to me for coaching because their boss has told them to. This is often referred to as “remedial” coaching because it may be the last step before a dismissal from the company. Coaching, in this case, is part of a performance improvement plan, and there are big stakes. This also means a lot of pressure on the coachee, and on the manager as well, to ensure that the employee performs — because a poorly-performing employee can sometimes also look bad for the manager.
Not all coaches will undertake remedial coaching, and for very good reasons. The coachee isn’t always willing. The time pressures can be tight. The goals are often restrictive and dictated from above, rather than chosen freely by the coachee. The coach may be pressured to break confidentiality in reporting to the manager about how the coachee is performing in the coaching sessions. And there are always many eyes on the process — the manager, the coachee, HR and sometimes senior-level leadership can be involved as well.
In my experience, the underperforming employee usually wants to change. He or she wants to keep his or her job and perform well. Often, there is more involved in the situation than just an employee who is lazy, or unaware, or lacking interpersonal skills. There is often something going on in the employee’s personal life with family or health, for example. There can also be poor management, poor role clarity, poor reporting lines and poor environment at work. This is the reality that the coachee is facing — and coaching can help the coachee manage the complexities of these situations while learning how to manage stress, cope with competing priorities and perform well at work, despite all of the other stresses and difficulties.
Why hasn’t the coachee come to coaching or worked on solving these problems before? The reality is that the coachee probably has tried a whole bunch of other things. He or she may have even confided in someone at work — a boss, a colleague or HR. However, the impetus to do the real work hasn’t been there until management finally says that enough is enough and brings in remedial coaching in a last-ditch attempt to make everything good again.
Unfortunately, remedial coaching on its own is not enough. No matter how hard the coachee wishes to make changes, there are still two important realizations for the workplace to embrace:
- The workplace must also change
- Change takes time
Let me discuss these two key factors further. For the sake of confidentiality, all of the following clients are fictitious composites of the kinds of people I often encounter.
Arabella was a remedial coaching client who was technically excellent at her demanding job, yet was facing some very overwhelming personal issues that resulted in her being interpersonally difficult at work and falling behind on deadlines. Work was aware of her personal issues — she had been very honest with her manager — and she increasingly confided in her manager who simply didn’t have the time or skills to support Arabella in the way she needed. Arabella was taking stress and medical leave and was erratic at work to the point that her employer wasn’t sure that it was a good fit anymore. Enter the performance improvement plan with coaching for this valuable, yet unreliable, employee.
Before agreeing to this contract, I had several meetings. The first was with the employer — often the manager and HR — to determine the history of the employee and the organization. I learned their perspective, and if the employee agreed to coaching. Next I met with the employee — my potential coachee — to learn her perspective and if she was coming to coaching willingly. There is always a choice and the employee has to be “coachable” in order for coaching to be effective. Then, I met with all of the stakeholders together including the employee, the manager, HR and potentially others depending on the complexity of the work environment. We aligned on the goals of the coaching as well as timelines, confidentiality, and how the workplace would support the success of the coachee. That last point may sound odd until you consider this:
Often, the employee has built up a track record that is increasingly disastrous, as was the case with Arabella. She had, over a couple of years, built up a negative reputation for herself due to her actions and inactions. Colleagues found her hard to work with. Managers did not want to deal with her and did not want her on their projects. Her team appreciated her hard work, but she was unreliable and they worried about being tarred with her bad reputation. This was not an environment in which Arabella could succeed — all of the people around her were expecting her to fail and continue her downward descent. She needed people to see the best in her, to believe in her, to be her cheerleaders and to help support her. She could not do it herself — her workplace and the people in it also needed to change.
Which brings us to the second realization the workplace must embrace: Change takes time. In our technological age, we have gotten used to things changing quickly and without much effort from us. Cars come with new equipment, like Bluetooth or backup cameras, that we need to learn to operate. Computers update overnight with changes to adapt to. Technology changes often and quickly. So we have come to expect that change is frequent and fast.
However, people don’t change at the rate of technology — we are creatures of nature and we can only change at the rate of our nature.
Have you ever tried to make a plant grow faster by adding more fertilizer? It doesn’t grow faster — moreover you risk “fertilizer burn” and the soil won’t be conducive to growth. Have you ever tried baking a cake faster by turning up the heat? It doesn’t work — the cake burns on the outside and is all mushy on the inside. The same thing happens with people when you turn up the heat and expect more results faster — they get all crispy and tense on the outside, and inside they are a bundle of mushy, negative emotions. It doesn’t work.
Change takes time — and this may be the hardest element for a workplace to realize. Arabella didn’t get to her negative state overnight — it was a slow descent over a couple of years. It would take at least that long for her to learn some new skills, try them out, fail a few times and try something new. It would take time to implement the skills that worked over the long-term, allow other people to see what was working, let them feel the impact of her new successes, give them time to realize that this change wasn’t just the “flavour of the month,” and then let them make their own new (hopefully positive) evaluation of what was going on with Arabella. It takes months, perhaps even years, for someone who has built up a negative reputation to turn it around — even with substantial workplace support and a welcoming, supportive environment and colleagues.
Coaching is no magic wand. When it works, it’s because the coachee is willing to do the heavy lifting and the workplace is willing to be supportive and actively look for the best in the coachee. Coaching is the catalyst — the coachee and the workplace are the active ingredients. Even the most difficult “remedial” client can have success with coaching, so long as everyone accepts that the workplace must also change and that you can’t rush change.