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Coaching at work

Handling poor performance - by looking at what's working

Mark McKergow, The Centre for Solutions Focus at Work

Published in Coaching At Work, Vol 4, Issue 5, p 52 (September 2009)

One of the most frequent questions I am asked when introducing Solutions Focused coaching is about how to handle poor performers. "This idea of building on what's working is all very well when things are OK - but what about when their work is simply not acceptable?"

It seems to me as if managers faced with this situation - which comes to most of us at some point or other - have a key choice to make. One possibility is to start with the idea that some kind of owning up, confession or acceptance of responsibility from the employee concerned is a necessary step towards making progress. A surprisingly large number of managers seem to take this view. What follows can be anything from demotivating to embarrassing to downright ugly.

So before you rush into a conversation designed to emphasise the inadequacy of the employee and their performance, think carefully. What do you want to achieve here? A mumbling promise to try to do better next time? Or an enthusiastic joint commitment to take action and improve matters quickly? If you would prefer the latter, start thinking about how to re-route the conversation from the start.

Admission of failure - or desire to improve?

There seems to me to be a key distinction between seeking an admission of failure and arriving at a desire to improve. And it's not at all clear that the former is a pre-requisite for the latter. So, start thinking about how to build the idea that better performance is in the interests of everyone involved - the staff member, you as the manager, other key stakeholders such as internal customers or external suppliers - whoever is involved.

Raise the topic - find what's working

I find that some managers find it quite hard to raise the issue of performance in an area where they know there has been a shortfall. One way is to wait for the employee to admit it. My guess is you'll be waiting a long time. The other way, of course, is to seek an opportunity to raise it yourself. So, ask how things are going in that area, and in particular comment on aspects which are acceptable, or even good. Wait for the response - you may be surprised at the awareness your staff member has about what is really required. Offer genuine enthusiasm for things which have gone well, or times when things have been better than others.

Broaden and build

This often has an interesting effect. Rather than a fearful response which narrows attention, the employee may relax and become more positive. Social psychologist Barbara Frederickson has written about the 'broaden-and-build' theory, where such positive states are associated with a broader awareness of the situation, improving relationships between the people involved and increased creativity. These things make an excellent backdrop to a useful conversation about your expectations and what's possible.

Build the platform for change

Having established that change is possible and desirable, you can coach the employee to build a platform for change - establish the general nature of what's wanted (for example quicker turnaround of orders, turning up for work on time, or whatever), and the benefits of this to everyone involved - including you. This puts the situation in a much more rounded context.

Are they prepared to act?

Finish off this part of the process by checking whether, supposing you could together find some actions to improve matters, the employee would be prepared to act. If you've done all the steps above, the answer should be a resounding 'Yes!'. If it isn't, there are other aspects of the situation which need to be addressed, so go find out what they are. However, more often than not you'll be facing an employee who has just agreed whole-heartedly to act and improve their performance... which is just what you wanted. Now all you need to do is coach them to find out exactly what they can do - in whatever coaching style you prefer. Get to it!

Dr Mark McKergow is director of sfwork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work and co-author of several books on Solution Focused practice including The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2007).