How To Coach An Uncoachable Employee - Scott Livengood

How To Coach An ‘Uncoachable’ Employee

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Many leaders who have worked their way into a senior position have had some tough experiences managing employees along the way. Whether the employee is underperforming or exhibiting problematic behavior, the situation can be stressful for all parties involved.

However, saying an employee is “uncoachable” is a serious conclusion. Leaders should first look to themselves to recognize the real issue at hand and see if there are solutions to be found for that issue.

Uncoachable Versus Ineffective Coaching

If you are having trouble working with your direct report, you must first ask whether you are labeling someone too quickly as “uncoachable.” Sometimes, the issue is not that the employee is uncoachable, but rather the leader doesn’t know how to coach. You’re directing, controlling or convincing, instead of asking questions and being curious about what’s happening for your team member. What have you asked of the employee up to this point? Have you been clear about their performance? Do they know, without a doubt, what your expectations are? Have you told them that you are frustrated?

It is important at this point to do a self-check. Are you asking questions? Or, are you simply telling (and calling it “coaching”)? Avoid just telling them what to do or convincing them of your point of view, and instead, look at the areas you might need to improve.

Understanding What Motivates Your Employee

Your employee might not be responding to your coaching because they are driven by different motivators than the goals and motivators you’ve set for your team, and they are unable to admit that to you. They might also simply be feeling stuck. The key is to initiate conversations to learn about what your employees want and what motivates them — and ultimately, create an environment where they feel safe to share this with you.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink posits that human motivation is intrinsic and that it may fall into one of autonomy, learning or purpose. A deep understanding of what motivates your employee will unlock a new perspective from which to provide feedback and might transform your interactions.

What You Can Do Early On

Use feedback to test if someone is coachable. Talk about your relationship and feelings, not just tasks, by asking about your employee’s story or experience. Be sure to separate facts from your own interpretation and feelings. Create a checklist that allows you to assess how ready you are to give feedback. (I trained with Brené Brown’s organization and find her engaged feedback checklist to be a helpful example of this.) If you can’t say, “Yes,” to everything on your list, you’re not ready to give feedback.

You can also use the situation, behavior and impact model — a strategy for addressing behaviors in a way that also describes the impact of those actions — to give feedback and ask a lot of questions.

Stop only talking about the work, and start building a trusting relationship with your employee. Get to know your team members, and have regular one-on-one meetings. Ask for feedback on how you can become a better leader to support them in their growth. And when giving feedback, offer it as information for the employee to consider what they want to do with it. If needed, give them a few days to think about it, and then they can come back and discuss what their next steps should be. If they don’t accept the feedback, don’t force it on them. Rather, set clear expectations and boundaries, and ask them what support they need to meet those expectations. It’s key to build trust with your team.

I’ve found helping your team bond with one another can also build trust. Some tools, such as personality assessments, can encourage these connections. Consider implementing programs that open up vulnerable conversations as well. One example is Patrick Lencioni’s activities to build connection in the team by sharing your most significant achievement and why it is important to you. In my experience using this tool, participants often share personal stories, which can help groups of people get to know one another. It can also create safety for the “uncoachable” team member to start experiencing trust in the team by sharing their own vulnerable story and having the team listen.

When An Employee Is Truly Uncoachable

To be uncoachable means that someone’s mind is set and they are unwilling to change. I can’t coach someone to run a marathon if they don’t want to run. I first have to coach them to find their motivation on why they want to run. If we can’t find that, we’re done.

An employee might be uncoachable if you repeatedly provide feedback and they ignore the issues. They might exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, focus on being right or blame others, and they could be overly controlling of their own and others’ work. I’ve found this is often a fear response that is linked to the fear of not being good enough. They can’t see that their behavior is negatively impacting their efforts to get to where they want most.

If you feel like you are approaching this point, it is important to document the entire experience. Involve human resources in your discussions with your employee. Don’t let their negative behavior go on forever. Do everything you can to test if the person can be coached, and then move on when necessary. Time doesn’t make things better — only action does.

As a leader, keep working on your ability to give effective feedback. Ask curious questions. Assume employees are doing the very best they can (even if they’re missing the mark), and practice being vulnerable in relationships with employees by sharing your thoughts and feelings, not just facts. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to have greater accountability in the relationship, so look inward and assess your own coaching skills so you can coach others in a way that they will be motivated to respond.

About Scott Livengood

Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.

Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.