The Seeds of Common Workplace Problems
Now let's look at the more common workplace problems. These are the kinds of hurdles you will be required to leap over during your coaching career. Foremost, it's important to identify the symptoms of problems in the making, because a full-blown problem is often so far along that finding a positive solution is a tougher undertaking. For example, if terminating an employee is your first resort in ridding yourself of a problem, then you've more than likely let the problem fester for far too long, or didn't detect it early enough.
Your job is to unearth solutions leading to positive outcomes, and that means you're going to have to tackle problems in stage one of their development and not in stage two, six, or 14. This highly aware and very aggressive posture affords you more options in your decision making. The more room you have to maneuver in problem bailiwicks, the more circumspect and productive your ultimate decisions will be.
Let's start with one of the most obvious workplace problems — obvious, but not always easy to solve. These are performance problems directly related to employee competence or motivation. The question you've got to ask yourself in these situations is whether or not you've made a mistake in evaluating the skill level of an underperforming employee or, perhaps, whether the performance deficit is rooted in a lack of motivation and commitment to the job.
If the performance problem rests in competence, then you are presented with two unmistakable choices. The first is further training of the employee, to raise his or her skill level to what is required to do the job. The second, if you determine that the employee is the wrong fit for what you need and not likely to pick up the necessary skills, is to bite the bullet and let the employee go. Teamwork in the workplace today is dependent on each and every employee understanding his or her individual job responsibilities and being highly competent in fulfilling them.
It is your assessment of the precise reasons for the poor performance that matters most. If you feel that this employee can be brought up to the productivity level that you need, then you've got to act fast and impart the necessary job-related skills to this underachiever. You could personally offer the employee a little extra of your own time and expertise. Or you could have a coworker take this underachieving employee under his or her wing for mini-mentoring. You could even find someone from another department in the organization to help out, or go outside for external coaching if need be.
Letting employees go is the single most difficult act of a manager, and it's even more so for you, a coach, who keeps people and their unique talents and possibilities foremost in your thoughts. But the productivity of employees cannot ever be glossed over if it is below the bar you've established. And this bar is the company's bottom line. Hopefully your empathetic tendencies will make the parting of the ways as painless as possible under the unfortunate circumstances. A person's lack of key skills in one work environment doesn't preclude another environment proving a better fit, where the skills more appropriately complement the work that needs to be done.
And then there are those mystifying performance dips. No, these aren't the things you plunge your potato chips into. They're what you are up against when employees under your direction demonstrate a noticeable slip in productivity. Your corrective coaching skills must spring into action when you discern that a formerly productive employee is no longer as productive as in the past. It's your job to find out exactly why.
Is there a personal problem behind the performance about face? Is it boredom with the job role itself? Is the employee overworked and burned out? Having difficulty working with a new teammate, perhaps? Whatever the root causes of the problem, it's your responsibility to uncover them and address them in a very timely fashion.
In stark contrast to the more traditional managerial approaches, coaching is tailor-made for comprehending the reasons behind performance dips. By establishing and building relationships with employees on a one-on-one basis, you're in the unique position of genuinely knowing and understanding the people behind the performance problems. Since you have fully rounded profiles of all of your employees, as well as substantive work histories to refer to, the skids of your detective work are greased.
Poor performance based on a dearth of necessary skills is one thing. And, as we've indicated, this problem can be dealt with in a straightforward manner, i.e., bring the skill level up to snuff or not. Employees, however, who have proven that they can do the job — and do it well — present a much more complex dilemma for a coach when their performances regress. Dinosaur managers who encounter performance drops in their employees are inclined to address these problems in their usual coarse ways. You know, the age-old ultimatum: Raise that productivity level or suffer the consequences — demotion or termination.
With this approach, there's no serious attempt to understand why there are the performance problems in the first place; no serious attempt to getting to the root causes. Meanwhile, back in Coach Town, you reach into your skills arsenal and pull out your communication tools. It's precisely in situations like performance dips where your listening skills (open-ended questioning, paraphrasing, mirroring feelings, and so on) play vital parts in getting to the heart of the problem.
A continuous and dynamic learning atmosphere in the workplace — which includes opportunity for advancement — is the key to staving off employee boredom. Boredom on the job inevitably leads to drop-offs in performance and the desire to look elsewhere for employment.
As a matter of fact, there are no more opportune circumstances to employ open-ended questioning than when confronting slumping employees. There are no better times to mirror their feelings. These are not moments to come on strong and to bully. Common sense tells you that performance slips are not camouflaging happy times — on the job or off — except, perhaps, if an employee won $50 million in the lottery and is sticking around until the first check arrives.
Proceeding on the assumption that the performance reversals of your employees are not lottery-induced, you must then attempt to unearth the reasons for the problems without leaving scars in the process. You don't want to put your employees on the defensive. Instead, you want to carefully engage them in dialogue, while bringing to the surface what's bothering them. You need to know precisely what's behind the performance decline.
Here are some examples of open-ended and probing questions that are appropriate in delicate situations like these:
“Your performance has dropped off of late; you're missing your deadlines and coming up short in reaching your goals. Do you see where there's a problem? Are there any reasons that you can think of for this decline in your productivity?”
“Do you feel comfortable working with your team? Are there any problems with any of your coworkers that you feel are impeding your own job in any way?”
“Any ideas as to why your performance has been slipping these past couple of months? Are you unhappy with your work assignments or role?”
Again, you must be persistent but always understanding. You also must be candid and encourage your employees to behave similarly by reaching into themselves for the reasons why their performances are heading south.
The Boredom Bomb
A dip in employee performance is sometimes the result of sheer boredom. Work that's all too familiar — not challenging anymore, intellectually unfulfilling, or not the least bit interesting — is a boredom bomb waiting to detonate. To ensure that your employees don't get bored, you must create a work environment that is a perpetually bubbling and stirring brew of learning. If it's anything but this spicy mixture, employees will rightly feel that they are treading water. And it's then that boredom and declining productivity takes root.
What can you do to make certain that you coach in a dynamic learning environment? For starters, keep a watchful eye on your people. Periodically evaluate whether or not each one of them is being sufficiently challenged in his or her individual job, and whether or not individual employees are genuinely afforded opportunities to advance and grow under your leadership.
Alas, it must be conceded that even a coach's little world doesn't always run as planned. Boredom on the job front requires healthy doses of corrective coaching. If you believe you've got a bored employee who has shown potential and sports a solid knowledge and skill base, plus an insatiable desire to learn, then you need to act, and act fast. You've got to alter the circumstances of this particular employee's job responsibilities and role in a positive way before it's too late. A bored employee is an employee poised to fly away from your nest.