Coaching Dilemmas: Traps and Pitfalls to Avoid

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By AMA Staff

Well done, coaching can boost individual and organizational effectiveness. Poorly done, it can alienate employees and undermine performance. Let's look at the most frequent traps coaches fall into and how to avoid them.

Allowing Disorientation to Continue

Coaches who neglect to orient an employee or postpone orientation may find themselves with a potentially effective employee whose work is starting to flounder. Such employees are off track because no one has taken the time to put them on the right track by clarifying the performance level expected of them or filling skill gaps first identified during recruitment but neglected in the hurry to get them to work.

Aware of a new hire's shortcomings during interviewing, we often plan to close that gap with training—either off-site or on-the-job—once the individual is at work. Unfortunately, by the time this person arrives on board, the situation has gotten to the point that our first thought is to get him to work. We don't undertake a training needs assessment or develop a training plan for the individual to ensure that his performance is up to standard, let alone review with the employee the job description and discuss specifically our expectations for his performance.

Employees shouldn't be forced to fill the gaps in either expectations or skills by trial and error. The likelihood is too great that they will make mistakes, injure their self-confidence, get reputations as poor performers, and become subjects not for coaching but for counseling.

Making Implied Promises

Many managers make the mistake in coaching of suggesting that added effort on an employee's part could land her a promotion or a high rating and big raise. It's unwise to use such a promise as an incentive unless you can truly deliver on it. A broken promise can undo any improvements in the performance of the employee as well as cause you to lose your credibility with both your staff and the employee, who will tell all how she was fooled by you.

Sometimes, when coaching, in order to leave an employee with no misunderstanding, you may even have to raise the issue just to squash it.

Changing Management Styles When Coaching Doesn't Work

Good managers, like good coaches, practice situational management, adapting the degree of direction they provide employees to their experience and self-confidence and to the nature and importance of the task assigned. But there are some general guidelines in coaching that remain pretty much the same regardless of employee or circumstance: the need for open, honest communications; mutual respect; recognition for excellence and outstanding performance; and shared responsibility for decisions and implementation. These aspects of coaching aren't things you put on when it is convenient but discard and replace with more autocratic overwear when things don't go as smoothly as the textbooks suggest. If you do that, you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish the positive relationship that you had as coach. Trust between you and your staff goes out the window.

What could cause you to lose faith in coaching as a managerial approach to employee performance?

Let's assume that you've been put on the spot. Plant management is installing new production equipment, and it wants your crew to install the equipment and be prepared to go on-stream with it in a month, six weeks at maximum. You tell management that you can't get it done in that time period unless it allows for overtime and extra staff during the transition. Management agrees. Now you have to tell your staff.

You have spent considerable time building rapport with your staff. You know that the changeover will come as a surprise to them, but you believe that your crew members trust you enough to know that you wouldn't commit them to such a tight deadline unless it was imperative to their continued employment or unless you believed that the deadline was feasible. Both of which were the case in this instance.

So you are more than shocked when the employees you have nurtured, trained, and empowered oppose the plan. Rather than calmly discuss the reasons for your staff's resistance, and make an effort either to convert your employees to your course of action or achieve some compromise, you tell them that they have no choice; you even threaten retribution if they don't work hard, including putting in overtime, to make that deadline.

And One More Mistake

A coach hadn't considered how his crew would respond, and he lost his cool, but he also made another mistake. He began to talk at them, not to them, about the change. He said, "I want this done," and "I expect you to make it a reality," and "I promised you would do it, and you will do it." He even went so far as to practice a little fear management, implying that failure to achieve the transition in the time allotted might force management to make some reassignments of crew members in order to place on the crew those who would be quicker learners.

Instead of this heavy-handed response, the coach could have shifted pronouns and adjectives from I and you to we and our, thereby reinforcing the sense of team that likely would have made even the one-month deadline less threatening to the crew.

Undermining Employees' Self-Esteem

I have mentioned the importance of the pronouns you use. The same is true of adverbs. When giving feedback, beware of correcting behavior using words like always or never, or other adverbs that could undermine a worker's self-esteem, suggesting that he or she never does anything well. For instance, you shouldn't say, "You are always late," or "You never complete work on deadline," or "You try all the time to get out of work." Instead, be specific. "Marie, on September 4, you were late by a half hour. What was the problem?" Or, "Michael, while you were traveling on business, I expected you to call. Why didn't we hear from you?"

Focusing on Attitudes

Just as feedback that makes use of exaggerated adverbs isn't constructive (think, instead, "destructive"), so too is judgmental attitudinal feedback. Suggesting that someone is lazy or argumentative or uninterested in her work is demoralizing, more likely to decrease the individual's level of performance than otherwise. After all, attitudinal feedback gives employees little direction to help them improve performance; it suggests no specific actions they can take to do so. Besides, such feedback is not legally defensible if it shows up on the employee's evaluation and is used to make a decision about a raise, a promotion, or, worst of all, continued employment.

Rather than tell an employee that she is "lazy," better feedback might be, "You don't lend a hand to other workers and, instead, have been frequently seen reading a novel or the newspaper, although your coworkers would welcome your help." Rather than tell an employee that you think he has no interest in advancement, you might note how he has turned down several training opportunities or refused to participate in some high-visibility projects. Or if a customer service rep is short-tempered, particularly when customers ask lots of questions, rather than accuse her of being argumentative, you might tell her, "Mildred, customers complain that it is very hard to get product information from you. As a result, some customers have confided that they are going to competitors."

Failing to Follow Up

Finally, when offering feedback, some feedback is better than no feedback. Managers who don't assess their employees beyond the quarterly or trimester appraisal reviews aren't giving their employees sufficient information to help them increase their performance. But feedback is as important, maybe more so, when you delegate an assignment to an employee or when you train one of your staff to master a new skill and even more important when you empower him or her to do something. Feedback at these crucial junctures may make it unnecessary for you to give negative feedback at the quarterly reviews or end-of-year evaluation.

About the Author(s)

Staff Writer This is written by a member of AMA's editorial staff.