Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

I’ve got a rough diamond on my team. She’s outstanding at her job, a great contributor and her customers seem to love her. My problem is that she has little regard for how she appears to others; she has low social sensitivity, addresses people inappropriately, makes outlandish statements, and her reports, letters and emails are atrocious in terms of grammar and spelling. Her sense of humour is all that saves her from real embarrassment in our management meetings. I believe she sees herself as a ‘real’ person.

She is ambitious but this is limiting her progress. I don’t know if I should address this with her or how to tell her the facts without risking alienation. Do you have any advice?

Response:

There are actually several issues here and I’d like to deal with some general aspects before I comment on the precise issue you’ve raised.

One general question is at what point should you speak up? How pressing does the matter have to be before you feel the need to take action?

An individual’s style in relationships, communication, collaboration, conformance and similar can appear to be simply a matter of personal choice and preference. When it begins to affect others, preoccupying their thoughts and actions and influencing their responses however, it becomes an issue of general concern.

Sometimes, time and exposure are sufficient to alert individuals to the fact that their style is causing ‘noise’ as opposed to ‘signal’ in their relationships. For most people this may take a few weeks or months as they adapt themselves within a new or changing culture; there are some though who seem to be continuously oblivious to the impact of their chosen style; they’re out-of-synch with others but don’t recognize this.

When those impacted begin to express their feelings openly, it has become a definite distraction. It also has greater consequences as there’s now an adverse impact on the individual’s reputation and prospects.  There’s no question about addressing the issue with her, and the time is now!

A second general aspect is how serious or significant does the matter need to be before it limits a person’s contribution and value to the organization. Clearly, if it directly affects the value delivered to customers, the image of the organization within the industry or community, or confidence among colleagues, it is serious.

Part of every organization’s culture is a ‘public profile’ – how we want to be recognized in our various communities and for some organizations this is simply a non-negotiable issue. For these organizations, where the organizational culture is strong and well defined, non-conformance moves to a critical point quickly; in looser cultures though it can be extended and ambiguous.

On a more personal level, if the behaviour is limiting or restricting potential and developmental opportunities, it is also critically important; it has to be resolved for everyone’s benefit. As her manager, your obligation is to help her to develop to her fullest potential and to enhance her value to the organization.

So, let’s get to your particular challenge – how to influence her behaviour without risking alienation. You have already adopted a good starting position in deciding to ‘tell her the facts’ rather than attempting to coerce her in other ways. However, there are some things you need to attend to first.

Job one is to be absolutely clear on what it is you want to achieve. Do you want her to conform to some external standard or would you be content for her to smooth over the rougher spots? It’s likely that you have attained a high level of competence but is it really necessary that she emulate you? Would it be acceptable were she simply to make a genuine effort to refine her work-related behaviour?

Next, you have to establish safe conditions in order to have a useful conversation and an essential question here, since you are her supervisor, is how the intervention might relate to formal performance evaluation. It should be a separate issue in that your intention is developmental and not directly related to her contribution (which you’ve stated is ‘outstanding’). This is also a personal style issue so her privacy should be assured.

Your strategy is based on coaching – where your intention is to assist her to think about things differently in order to increase her effectiveness. The approach should, therefore, include a measure of gap analysis – where do we want to be versus where are we right now?  You could use questions of consequence – (what do you think others might feel when you . . . ; how do you think others will respond if . . .) to encourage her to process causes and effects / impacts and to examine possible consequences in her own mind.

Your role is to guide this process, not to design or control it. All the valuable thinking has to occur within her head and your job is to help her find her way to new perspectives (the way she frames events) and the related perceptions (the values that she ascribes to those events). When she sees the world differently she will change her own behavioural responses to what is happening.

You must avoid the roles of ‘shrink’, teacher, judge and parent particularly; these are the causes of possible alienation. She will form a plan of action, given your guidance and encouragement, and it will be her plan to implement and sustain.

Do whatever you need to do to ensure her success but be patient in your approach. Show your interest and support by being there when she needs you but don’t take or accept responsibility for any part of the plan – it has to be hers alone.

I hope this helps.