Is Your Problem Employee Coachable?

Businesspeople working in an office

When an employee is struggling to produce results, managers often aren’t sure whether they should invest time in coaching the person and trying to build their skills, or whether it’s simply not the right fit. On one hand, people can and do improve their work skills all the time; on the other hand, though, some skill deficiencies can’t be fixed with the amount of time typically available on the job. How can you tell which you’re facing?

Here are five steps to figuring out whether to invest development energy in coaching your team member or whether you might be looking at a more fundamental mismatch.

1. Think about whether the issue is a fairly straightforward skill or a more fundamental talent or trait. For example, you can usually teach someone to use a particular type of software or help them practice a sales technique. But other talents and core traits – like strong writing, critical thinking, or attention to detail – tend to be deeply rooted and difficult for a manager to change.

2. Think about whether the area where the person is struggling is one that’s fundamental to succeeding in the job, or whether it’s more of a “nice to have.” For example, if you have a shy programmer who has trouble connecting with others, his shyness probably doesn’t interfere with his ability to do his job well. But if he were in a heavily client-facing job, it might impact the core results he was able to achieve in his job.

So ask yourself how important the area you’re concerned about is to a successful performance in the role. When a problem is about fundamental traits or talents that are at the heart of the requirements of the role, you might eventually succeed in generating small improvements, but the person probably won’t ever perform at the high level you need.

3. Reflect on what the staff member has done with the guidance you’ve given so far. Does the person have a track record of taking a small amount of assistance and putting it into practice in a way that leads to notable progress? Or have they struggled to apply the help you’ve given so far? When someone is able to take advantage of the development energy you invest, it makes more sense to invest that energy than when you haven’t seen evidence that it pays off in the way you need.

4. Be honest with yourself about what it would take to get the person’s skills where you need them. For example, if you might feel that if you were able to spend multiple hours each week with the person, coaching her and mentoring her, you’d be able to build her skills to the level needed – but that might not be the right use of your time. Managers also sometimes over-rely on sending struggling team members to outside trainings. Trainings can help build very specific skills (like learning to use a particular software) but rarely are as effective when the problem is one of core talents (like writing or communication skills).

5. Think about how clearly you’ve communicated your expectations to the person. If you haven’t already clearly told the person what you need and where they’re falling short, they may not even realize that they need to focus on improving in that area. Simply realizing it may not be enough, but it’s a crucial first step if improvement is ever to be possible … and if it does turn out that the fit just isn’t the right one, this kind of discussion will lay the groundwork for figuring that out without blindsiding the person too.

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