Coaching an Employee to Change a Bad Habit

One of your employees has a career-limiting habit. Procrastination. Frequent careless errors in written work. Audible impatience when talking with customers on the phone. How do you encourage behavior modification?

To change a long-term habit or weakness, an employee must…

  1. Genuinely “own” the trait.
  2. Want to change.
  3. Understand what to do instead.
  4. Implement the change.

As a manager, your job is to hold up a mirror to create awareness of the behavior and its consequences—and to help your employee through the four steps listed above.

Here’s a conversation framework to improve your chances of securing the desired new behavior.

Describe the problematic trait and ask if it’s a surprise

Consider this example: A talented employee of yours is a chronic procrastinator who puts things off until it is an emergency. He sometimes misses deadlines and always submits work too late for a review. You decide it's time to take this on and start a conversation with him. "I've noticed something I think is limiting you and want to talk about it."

Describe the problematic behavior in one or two clear, direct, pre-thought sentences. Then, stop and ask, “Is this something you know about yourself?” Sometimes, a trait is so habitual the employee is unaware of doing it and/or unaware that it’s negatively affecting others.

If the trait is a surprise, some employees will respond with denial, and you won’t get very far in inspiring a change. Even when you provide examples, the employee may think the problem is you and your perception. If you encounter resistance, create an agreement that you both will monitor the situation for a month and you'll highlight any example of the trait immediately.

Invite the employee to describe the adverse consequences of the behavior

If the trait isn’t a surprise, you can say, "Good, I'm glad you know about this issue. What do you feel are the consequences of your procrastinating?” Typically, you will get an incomplete list. This is your opportunity to hold up the mirror and really show the impact of the procrastination on you, fellow workers, customers, work quality, etc.

If the employee seems to be “hearing” all of this information, you can ask, "Is this something you'd like to work on changing?” Once you have a "yes" to this question, you are on the same side. You are both working for the same change.

If you feel the employee isn't hearing the seriousness of the issue or seems to think you are hyping it up, you might say, "I sense you are not buying the severity of the impacts you're having on our business or yourself, so I'd like you to think more about it. From my perspective, you need to solve this. Let's talk again in a few days to see if this is something you want to change."

Coaching the employee through the change

Changing a habit requires understanding the mechanics of a better alternative. Saying “don’t procrastinate” is a little like saying “stop smoking” to someone who is addicted to nicotine. Most people can’t change a behavior cold turkey. They need some type of support.

Every behavior has a positive goal, otherwise we wouldn’t engage in the behavior. So, the employee needs to look at what they are gaining from procrastination. If they can see other ways to achieve the same goal more reliably, changing the behavior will be far easier.

Employees also need to develop some clear action steps. In the case of a procrastinator, one strategy might be to set internal deadlines that are 24 hours earlier than client deadlines. That’s a clear, measurable step—either the employee delivers or doesn’t.

Lastly, as part of the change implementation, create an accountability and feedback mechanism. That way, you and the employee can see progress, and the employee has incentive to maintain the new behavior.

Mistakes often made

Managers who more naturally REQUIRE (see earlier post) tend to skip from Step 1 (telling the employee the problem) to Step 4 (asking him to take action to solve it). These managers assume the simple act of telling an employee to do something will inspire the needed change. Behavior modification is not simply a “task.” Employees may need some hand-holding to understand what needs changing and how to change.

Managers who more naturally RELATE often prefer to tell employees the things they are doing well and sugar-coat discussion of the needs-attention areas to the point where employees don’t “hear” the feedback. RELATING managers may not clearly articulate the problem that needs correcting. They may fail to spell out the business and personal consequences of continuing the behavior. The goal is not to make employees feel better. It’s to get great work done, which sometimes means calling for change.

Most managers, regardless of their style, have difficulty with step 3 (helping the employee understand what to do instead). The HR department, Internet, self-help books, or an outside coach can provide guidance for this step.

The best managers are direct and caring, clear about what is hurting or limiting their employees and ready to help employees through the change process.

Not sure if you are RELATER or REQUIRER? Go to for a free assessment of how you are managing your people.

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