Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
I’ve just been invited to take on a new role as department head. There are eight members of staff – all good, productive people save for one. In this case there’s a long and troubled history with outright rudeness, a lack of respect and collaboration and even politically motivated behaviours.

How do I deal with this when her behaviour has been tolerated and ignored for several years?

Response:
One thing is certain – it would be highly imprudent to go in with the intent of putting her in her place with heavy warnings and dire threats at the outset. This would cement the problem and make it very difficult to influence in the future. You will need to be completely open, friendly and accessible to all from day one.

Your initial move is to communicate your expectations and preferred leadership style to the group as a whole. Begin with your principles and broad strategies and then spell out your explicit expectations of all members of the team. Use several specific examples of the behaviours you will be encouraging and rewarding even before you detail specific roles and responsibilities.

Emphasize the cardinal rules for the team’s operation so that everyone is totally aware of your success criteria and before there’s any reference to past behaviours or incidents. Encourage discussion and clarification so everyone is absolutely clear about what has to be accomplished and how this will best be done. This way everyone has the same rules within which to operate.

Use this new understanding as a frame of reference for catching people doing things right over the next days and weeks. Watch diligently for every possible occasion to identify and reinforce the expected behaviours especially from the suspect member of staff. Be very precise in relating the observed behaviour to the principles you’re promoting.

You might say "JoAnne, I noticed that when John asked for suggestions relating to his challenge in yesterday’s staff meeting that you had two good ideas that you put forward. This is a great example of what I identified as building collaboration within the team. Well done!”

If it had gone the other way and you’d observed unproductive behaviour you will need to confront this too. First describe what actually happened versus what was expected and then ask for an explanation. You could say "JoAnne, I noticed that when Alan presented his proposal at the meeting this morning you stated that it was an idiotic idea which ignored professional standards. One of our key principles is mutual respect and your comment was clearly disrespectful. Tell me why you said what you did.”

If her response is that she didn’t consider her response to be disrespectful, then you need to define more clearly what you mean by this value. Should she deflect and say it was no big deal and she really wasn’t serious then address the consequences to the point that she appreciates the impact of her statements.

If her response is that it just slipped out before she could check it, then you will need to coach her through a deeper understanding of her inherent assumptions about other people – she needs to master the stories she is telling herself about others with whom she works.

In each case ask for a specific commitment to action that will address the issue; who will do what by when, and be prepared to follow through on that commitment. Offer your continuing help in coping with the changed behaviours and reinforce every related success whenever you can.

It will require patience and persistence and you may need to repeat the fundamental principles you outlined at the start several times before they are assimilated. If there’s no sign of steady and sustainable change towards the expressed value and/or standard you may need to point out very clearly that subscribing to your expressed principles is not optional but a mandatory part of performance.

Beyond this point you may have to deal with the deeper issue of deliberate non compliance. If the employee chooses not to adhere to the teams adopted values and standards then there have to be disciplinary consequences. The productivity and wellbeing of the team cannot be compromised by any individual and the consequences of voluntary non compliance must be dealt with in accordance with your established disciplinary procedures.

This is now past the point of coaching (which assumes that improved performance is mutually desired) and there will be adverse outcomes in your relationship as supervisor. Sometimes you need to bite the bullet.

Note however that the recommended process moves through the following steps:

  • First, create a level playing field where every person has the option to be successful
  • Next, define and demonstrate the principles you’ve selected so that there’s no ambiguity
  • Then monitor actual behaviours accentuating the positives and confronting the negatives
  • Explore the consequences of actual, observed behaviours in the context of your expectations
  • Offer support but insist on definitive corrective action if needed; follow through to ensure it
  • Move to a disciplinary approach if there is deliberate resistance to the established team norms.

This is a sound and proven approach to shaping desired behaviours within a group; it will work for the majority of situations even where there are no problems

I hope this helps.