By: Kim Moshlak on March 4th, 2014

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Best Tips for Coaching the "Difficult" Employee

Communication | Total Rewards | Best Practices | Employee Relations

You just called Bill to come to your office to discuss a deadline that was missed…and here he comes.  While he’s on the way, you get anxious…your palms sweat, you feel a little “queasy” and you know that no matter what you say, he either won’t get it or will get defensive.  HELP!  What’s a leader to do?

Have you ever been in that situation?  You really want to provide productive feedback to an employee to help them see something a different way (because isn't that what feedback is all about?) and he/she just doesn't take it the way you meant it.  For example, you say, “Hey Bill, I wanted to talk to you about the deadline we missed.  What happened from your perspective?” Seems harmless enough, right?  Instead of it seeming like a “team” conversation, Bill breaks into a defensive posture and begins spouting out excuses for why the deadline was missed.  These can be tough conversations to handle, but with a little guidance,    anyone can improve their skill in this area.

When this happens to me or one of our clients, I always give the same advice…”Take a look in the mirror.”  What could I have done differently knowing what I knew or what I have just learned?  Here are some things to consider.

1. Consider your choice of wording.  Sometimes the words we choose are not acceptable to the person who is receiving them.  Why?  A hundred reasons really, but ideally it is because of their own life experiences.  So…to limit the chance of a comment being taken defensively, here are some tips:

When a manager says…

It is often heard or taken as…


YOU did or didn't …..

“I’m being blamed”

“We did or didn't…”

Nice work on this, but…

“I didn't do what was asked of me” or “S/he doesn't think I’m capable”

Dropping the word “but” from vocabulary when you are coaching or counseling someone

“Always” or “never”

The manager doesn't know me

Dropping these words…it most likely isn't true


2. Consider your relationship.  First, do you have a strong relationship with this person?  If not, I would suggest that you start there.  Building relationships with your coworkers, regardless of their level shows that you have respect for them, and that you have an interest in them as a person.  Don’t want to talk about your personal life?  You can share as much or little as you wish, but consider sharing something…it makes you human in the eyes of others.

A great framework for providing feedback is to keep your comments confined to an actual action or behavior.  We recommend staying away from adjectives that might define or judge the behavior (because we never know someone else’s motivation) and get right down to the behavior itself.  For example, instead of saying, “you were rude”, consider saying “I noticed you interrupted me while I was talking”.  This way of phrasing the behavior is less judgmental and focuses on what needs to be considered.

Oh, and one last thing, if Bill is that guy who can’t take feedback, and you deliver it well, and he handles it well, take a moment to thank him for hearing you out.  Chances are, he will be a little more open to feedback in the future.