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:


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.

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