Conflict | 5 MIN READ

Pointers for effectively coaching difficult people

Written by Jennifer Curry

One of the most difficult, yet rewarding, tasks for managers is coaching difficult people. If you make it your goal to help these difficult employees rather than transferring them or firing them, you will reap the rewards. Coaching difficult people effectively results in healthier workplace chemistry, improved performance, and better productivity. 

Another reward – you won’t want to quit. A survey by Talent LMS found, “61% of managers say that the number one reason they stay is that they work well with the people they manage.” Once you understand how to deal with difficult employees, they will no longer hold you or your workplace hostage to negativity. 

Here are pointers for effectively coaching difficult people to make your job easier.

Praise in Public, Correct in Private

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” Managers need to keep this in mind when dealing with challenging employees. 

Don’t make the mistake of correcting your employee during the daily standup meeting. This will embarrass and shame the employee – not what you are going for. Instead, when correction is necessary, it must be done in private. At the same time, go out of your way to publicly praise all your employees – even the difficult ones.

Give Real Examples 

When you are correcting an employee’s behavior, the key is to focus on specific behaviors and not their personality. For example, don’t say, “Sometimes you are rude.” Instead, provide real examples, such as “On Monday, you interrupted your co-worker repeatedly when she was giving a presentation.” 

The key to giving real examples is to document them. As Erika Andersen explains in Forbes, “Good managers know that documentation isn’t negative – it’s prudent.” Unfortunately, sometimes when coaching difficult people, HR needs to get involved. In these cases, documentation will protect you. 

Get the Employee on the Same Page

Even if it doesn’t reach the point of needing assistance from HR, actual documentation of poor behavior, such as providing specific examples you’ve made a note of, prevents the employee from arguing that he or she doesn’t do these things. If they are defensive, they will not be open to change. In contrast, if they can see the problem, they will likely be more willing to change as a result. Likewise, document your coaching sessions for future reference. This will allow you and the employee to see progress. 

Listen with an Open Mind

The best managers know the key to turning things around is listening and empathizing. Instead of simply deeming an employee a lost cause, they reach out and give the employee an opportunity to explain his actions. Often, simply giving the employee a space to vocalize his or her feelings solves the problems. Likewise, understanding the situation often makes all the difference.

Point Out WIIFM

WIIFM stands for “What’s In It For Me?” When it comes to coaching difficult people, it is wise to help them see the benefit of making changes. For instance, explain how their current behavior may hinder growth opportunities and point out what they can achieve if they start to do things more professionally. 

Plan Next Steps Together 

After providing clear examples, listening to the employee, and pointing out the WIIFM, it’s time to start planning the next steps. The key here is to allow the employee to provide input. Ask for his goals and what steps he thinks he can take to achieve these goals. This gives him an active role in the process, so he feels more invested. 

Set Clear Expectations

Coaching difficult people also involves taking hard stances. After you have planned the next steps, as manager, you have to set clear expectations, such as the timetable for when you want to assess their goal progress. If the reason you are setting aside time to coach the employee is a result of a serious infraction, you should also include the consequences of not meeting these goals by the designated time according to your business’s discipline program. 

Express Faith in the Person

Talking about consequences is probably one of the least fun parts of your job. The good news is that your conversation with the employee shouldn’t end there. Instead, you want to end on a positive note by expressing faith in the employee (the belief that she will accomplish these goals). Think of it like using the old constructive feedback sandwich model (place negative feedback between positive feedback). 

Provide Support

After the big talk is over, your coaching isn’t finished. Now, you need to provide support for the employee. Depending on the remediation steps, you may need to provide training, mentors, or resources to help the employee grow. 

Continue to Check-In

Coaching difficult people is ongoing. You can’t talk to the employee about their frustrating behavior and just let it go. You need to follow-up regularly with the employee and see if the support you’ve provided is helpful. However, you don’t want the employee to feel like you are checking on them as a punishment; instead, make it clear you are checking to see how you can help.

Model Positive Behaviors

Lastly, as manager, it is critical that you model the kind of behaviors you want from your employees. For example, if you try to correct their tardiness issue when you are notorious for being late, you will look like a hypocrite and they won’t respect your authority. Therefore, before you try coaching difficult people in the workplace, check yourself. 

Last updated on February 17, 2021

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