When Training & Coaching Fail

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues
When Training & Coaching Fail

Sometimes a skilled employee has a problem behavior that adversely affects team dynamics, morale, productivity, quality, or other business measures.

Organizations face two questions: “How much do we invest in helping the employee change this behavior?” and “How long do we allow for behavior modification before we say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Take Sally, for example. You hired Sally for her unparalleled subject matter expertise.

However, within a few weeks of bringing her on board, you begin receiving a stream of complaints about her communication style. Abrasive. Impatient. Arrogant. According to colleagues, she seems clueless about how she is affecting others.

Because she is relatively new to the organization, you are inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. In her interviews, she had come across as a polished, precise communicator.

So, you bring her in, share the feedback you’ve received, and ask if she is aware of the tension. She seems genuinely surprised, because in her view, things have been going smoothly.

How Do You Proceed?

Three things need to happen at this point:

  1. Note the date and gist of the feedback conversation in her personnel file.
  2. Develop an action plan with her regarding how she is going to work on this particular issue. For example, she could meet with her team, acknowledge the feedback she has received, and invite team members to call her attention to offensive communications in real time so she becomes more aware of the impact of her words and tone on others.
  3. Agree to meet in six weeks to discuss progress and whether the complaints have subsided.

This light amount of coaching gets some employees on the right track quickly. In some cases, though, no amount of feedback, coursework, or coaching seems to make a difference, and the complaints keep rolling in.

Pinpointing The Problem

Robert Dilts’ concept of Logical Levels is a helpful framework for understanding why training or coaching sometimes falls short.

He articulates the following hierarchy:

Dilt Chart


His premise? In order to successfully enact a change, you must work at a level above the area you are trying to change. For example, if I want to change a behavior, then the answer is at a level somewhere above behavior. It may be a capability issue, a belief/value issue, an identity issue, or a spiritual issue.

Dilts’ theory explains why environmental changes, such transferring a problem employee to a different team, do not resolve behavioral issues.

To complicate matters further, multiple factors can affect capabilities, beliefs/values, and identity, making it harder to find a lasting solution for a vexing behavior. Examples include learning disabilities, high IQ, mental health disorders, lack of cross-cultural communication sensitivity, and more.

Employers can shape the company environment—corporate culture, team make-up, etc. They can attempt to shape behavior through performance feedback. They can augment capabilities through training and coaching. But what if none of this is making a difference in resolving a personnel problem?

Where Do You Draw The Line?

Some organizations find it easy to have shape-up-or-ship-out conversations with employees – even star performers and key subject matter experts. If Sally stays and does not adjust her communication style, there’s an easy-to-anticipate set of consequences. Some of her colleagues may transfer or choose to leave the company, creating an expensive turnover problem. Morale may take a hit, which can diminish productivity. If Sally isn’t noticing the effect of her communication inside the company, there is a risk she may alienate customers outside the company, too.

Unfortunately, many organizations hang on to people like Sally far too long. Instead of presenting a cost-benefit analysis to Sally, clearly spelling out that she is costing the organization more than the value she is delivering, they transfer her from team to team or adjust her role, somehow hoping for better results.

I included the Dilts information to emphasize that there are some situations outside an employer’s ability to diagnose and fix. There are coaches, neuropsychologists, and other outside experts, who may be able to help if an employee really wants to pursue change. But whose responsibility is it to seek those outside resources?

The health of your organization depends on timely correction of performance issues. Some employers may choose to invest in an outside expert to help a high potential employee. But you can’t afford to experiment for months or years when an employee’s bad habit is damaging relationships and business results.

As a manager, if you have provided the tools and training to do a job, the employee’s success or failure is not your responsibility. It’s up to the employee to make the adjustments necessary to be an effective member of your team.

What steps does your organization take to ensure an employee is making meaningful progress toward changing a problem behavior?

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C. Schaefer  |  27 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi Leigh. Thank you so much for sharing the Dilts model, and crafting a story around it to help us understand. Very useful. I will be checking into it. Well done.

Leigh Steere  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Thanks, Mary!

John E. Smith  |  27 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh:)

You are creating high expectations for quality blog posts here on Lead Change Group.

I agree with your observation that organizations are often too slow to react to problematic performance. I would guess we all have “horror stories” about working with someone who just needed to be somewhere, anywhere else, but those with the power to act, do not … or if they do, act inappropriately, which does not resolve the issue.

The Logical Levels model is one I am somewhat familiar with from my coaching. My training is the use of this model was more focused on helping an individual think through their issues, planning, and goal-setting in a more comprehensive way. For example, as you pointed out, environmental changes do not address all the intangible issues which affect behavior. Sometimes a person just thinks they need to change jobs and all will be well.

One of my favorite sayings applies here, I think: “No matter where you go, there you are.” (attributed to Confucious, made popular by Buckaroo Banzai, also the basis of an entire book “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn). Using logical levels is a useful tool to help the person focus and become mindful, identify what they are not thinking of, and a real help in comprehensive planning for success.

Your application to managing people demonstrates the usefulness of this tool.

You also mentioned two other things I want to comment on:

1) “Who’s responsibility is it to seek outside help?”

I think the employee should always take the primary role in seeking to improve their performance. You can make a strong case that an employee who is not motivated to continually improve is a less valuable employee, regardless of their technical skills. Of course, I would hope that any organization that is serious about supporting employee change will include coaches as both internal and external resources for all levels of employees, not just executives.

Your comment about not investing months or years also caught my attention. I think what too often happens is that clear and specific milestones for improvement are not incorporated into the employee’s plan for improvement. Organizations where people prefer to avoid confrontation and firm management may be reluctant to put a meter on an individuals performance, especially if that employee represents a significant investment for them.

A clear time table with clear markers to be met does wonders here:)

Thanks for a very meaty post – like I said earlier, you are gaining a reputation here:)


Leigh Steere  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

John, I really appreciate your comments. Having a clear time table with clear markers is crucial, and I’m glad you pointed this out. Many employers struggle with how to set a clear improvement goal for a behavior, since behavior is hard to quantify. What are some examples you’ve seen of effective ways to measure or observe behavioral improvement?

Jane Anderson  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

This was a red light to me: “So, you bring her in, share the feedback you’ve received, and ask if she is aware of the tension. She seems genuinely surprised, because in her view, things have been going smoothly.” Since transparency and honesty are the best ways to get to the root of a problem, Sally first has to acknowledge that she has been abrasive, arrogant, and impatient. If she doesn’t see it she will have to have it pointed out to her at the time it’s happening. What if the team members, who have been a team and comfortable with their style and habits, feel a little intimidated by a new person who brings new skills and insights to the table?

One option you mentioned is, ” If Sally stays and does not adjust her communication style, there’s an easy-to-anticipate set of consequences.” I think if Sally stays she will need to be agreeable to immediate feedback so she can evaluate whether she sees the need to modify her style or not. If not, then HR should provide resources to help in her job search because for whatever reason, her style is not going to blend well and it would be advantageous to the team and to her if Sally found happiness somewhere else.

Leigh Steere  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Jane, you’ve made several important points here:

* Does Sally recognize the problem?
* If not, is she able to “see” it with help?
* If she’s able to see it and “own” it, is she able to correct it quickly enough for the organization’s needs?

If the answer is no to the second or third bullet, then it’s time to discontinue the employment relationship.

Thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts.

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