Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Performance management: why poor results should be managed with coaching, not disciplinaries

The process and the language we use to handle poor performance in the workplace needs to change. Disciplinary procedures shouldn’t be the default option when coaching is often what is needed.

11th May 2020
Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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woman in disciplinary meeting at work
iStock/Pekic

A friend of mine found a new job in sales after a long time out of work. He was both relieved and excited to land the opportunity because he felt he had exactly the right mix of skills and experience to be successful. Although his most recent role had not had a direct selling element, he had years of sales experience and was looking forward to getting back into it. After a promising start, however, things began to take a turn for the worse. The company’s main product changed, making it much harder to sell and less relevant to the client database he’d inherited.

We might replace the terms ‘misconduct’ and ‘capability’ with the more optimistic ‘willingness’ or ‘ability’.

The company also changed the territorial boundaries and he found himself with far fewer of the affluent prospective clients he needed. This started to become worrying and unsettling for my friend, after all he was an experienced seller with a terrific track record, but his results were in free fall and his bosses were getting very uptight. He knew that I coached senior leaders on a one-to-one basis and asked if I’d be willing to try to help.

To begin with, I wanted to understand what would happen if things didn’t improve. My friend said, “oh, they’ve told me in no uncertain terms that I’ll have to attend a disciplinary interview where we’ll examine ways my performance could improve, with a timetable and methods for tracking improvement”.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I said that sounds like it could be really helpful and could we do it now please,” he told me.

According to Acas, a disciplinary procedure is a formal way for an employer to deal with an employee’s:

  • Unacceptable or improper behaviour (‘misconduct’)
  • Performance (‘capability’)

I can see the point of a disciplinary interview for misconduct, perhaps recurring lateness, continual dubious sickness, being rude to colleagues or customers, etc. To discipline someone regarding their capability – i.e. struggling to deploy their knowledge, skills, experience and resources – seems to me unlikely to achieve much.

From a coaching point of view, I’d much prefer to see these sorts of things tackled long before any talk of disciplinary procedures, and in doing so we might replace the terms ‘misconduct’ and ‘capability’ with the more optimistic ‘willingness’ or ‘ability’.

A question of willingness or ability

For example, how would you approach coaching these characters?

  • John is something of an excited puppy. He works with great enthusiasm but often gives clients the wrong information because he does not understand how fees are worked out. Several clients have registered complaints, which has made John quite upset and you worry that his motivation and enthusiasm may wane.
     
  • Ringo is a management graduate with a wide knowledge of business processes. He is reluctant to delegate tasks, however, and when he does he worries over his staff while they do it for him.
     
  • Georgina consistently uses inappropriate humour with customers, often coming across as sarcastic and disrespectful. She was scheduled to attend a customer care seminar but did not show up on the day.
     
  • Paul is suddenly and surprisingly becoming cynical and negative. He was once the first to embrace any new initiative, and still does, though not with the same enthusiasm. He has completed the required company training and recently passed a college diploma course, however he has just told you that he does not feel his actions have any effect on how the department operates.

John is 'willing but not able'. He has the motivation but not the skills. We could use coaching to harness his motivation and create an environment of trust where he is more willing to ask questions and seek explanations. You may need to be tolerant of his early mistakes.

Ringo is the opposite – 'not willing but able'. It is not that he doesn't know how to delegate, it's that he doesn't put it into practice. He does not need more training since his ability is not in question (and it would probably just frustrate him more). What he needs is coaching to understand his reluctance to delegate, which is usually to do with a fear of losing control.

Georgina is 'neither willing nor able'. If you consider it is worth investing more time in her, I would suggest you start on willingness. You can use coaching to try to restore motivation, but you will also need to monitor her performance quite closely and provide detailed feedback. After that, it's up to her.

Paul is 'willing and able', but he may not remain so unless you provide opportunities to take responsibility. You need to give him your trust and encourage his awareness by seeking feedback and asking for this thoughts and suggestions.

The four combinations can be arranged on a graph, like this:

Willing and able figure

Motivation

So, let’s go back to my friend. In fairness, he works for a company that has grown very fast and lacks a seasoned HR function. This could well be part of the problem, but his story also highlights a couple of crucial coaching principles:

  1. Telling someone to do something does not enable them to be able to do it.
     
  2. Waving sticks (such as disciplinary interviews) may work a treat in motivating donkeys, but it doesn’t do much for professional adults in a work situation.

Listening to his predicament, I was reminded of the old tale about the company director who announced, “unless morale improves, sackings will continue”! Consider this next time you’re managing someone whose performance is in question.

Interested in this topic? Read How good coaching can replace bad performance reviews.

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