One of the key responsibilities of both managers and leaders is to encourage and enable peak performance in our teams. From time to time the journey towards this goal will undoubtedly founder upon the rocks of incompetence and low commitment. When this happens the problem is quite likely to be rooted in matters of alignment, accountability and the supporting ecosystem. However, there will often be times when an individual will benefit from, or simply need, focused personal, coaching or counseling. Tackling this early is critical. Doing it right even more so.
“The test of an organisation is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.” – Peter Drucker
One problem that I have encountered from time to time is a premature move towards disciplinary ‘counseling’. Occasionally this is not, in fact, counseling at all and is, instead, more of a trial sans jury. Regardless of how it actually plays out, this step should, in my view, be resisted until the other options have been properly exhausted. There are often very good reasons why performance is not where it was hoped or expected. It is imperative that the root cause be understood and a positive, future-focused mind-set employed to get things back on track.
There is a simple model to guide us here: “the willing and able model” (derived from the Situational Leadership Model). Picture a two-by-two grid with four quadrants. These boxes signify: (a) willing and able – this is the empowered quadrant where peak performance can most readily occur, (b) willing but unable – this is where coaching is required to help boost performance, (c) able but unwilling – this is where counseling is required to modify undesirable behaviours and (d) unwilling and unable – this is the zone of last resort where disciplinary counseling may ultimately become necessary. (In this model, ‘willing’ may imply confidence and ‘unwilling’ may imply insecurity).
Taking the coaching zone first, what you are looking for is to objectively and collaboratively identify competency gaps and to elaborate a plan to close them. This applies to driving peak performance in the ‘willing and able’ quadrant as well. The development plan should have specific actions, owners, resources, success criteria and review points. Competency-based thinking requires both capability and motivation. The capability part requires the knowledge, a model of the steps involved and finally the skills to do it. Opportunities to practice and to experiment safely must be provided so that individuals can be taken beyond their comfort zone and so reach their full potential. Moreover, an adaptive learning-based approach should be applied to the development plan – if something isn’t working, try a different way or use a different resource. Developing knowledge of the team member’s learning preferences can help steer you to the best approach. However, it is important to remember the distinction between coaching and training. Coaching is primarily about providing guidance and helping others help themselves.
Counseling is different to coaching although it employs the same basic approach to creating an action plan. Here you have an attitude problem irrespective of the level of competency. It is a matter of motivation. I think it was Jack Welch who described three types of employees: A-players who achieve high levels of success by equating risk with recognition, B-players who do quite well but are motivated to avoid the risk of failing and subsequently do not achieve their full potential and C-players that just deliver the minimum demanded by their employment contract (be on the lookout for A-players masquerading as C-players). However, there may be a lot more to it than that. Misaligned value systems, misunderstood accountabilities, unclear objectives, fear or just a temporary private issue could all be key parts of the puzzle. Here it is imperative to build rapport, listen actively and draw out the pivotal root cause. It is also very important to objectively communicate the desired and observed behaviours together with their resulting impact. Dr. Carolyn Anderson has identified eight core human fears: failure, success, rejection, inadequacy, scarcity, being alone, losing control and standing out. These fears correlate strongly with David Rock’s primary drivers of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. I believe that it is highly likely that one or more of these drivers will be affecting the motivation of an ‘able but unwilling’ team member. Because these primordial drivers control strong emotions it is imperative to stay focused on the facts, be responsive, supportive and encouraging and, above all, be patient. It is also important to use clarifying behaviours and act as a role model.
It is quite possible that reduced capability has arisen from an attitude issue and by tackling that first with counseling it will then be possible to move on to coaching to raise the performance bar. If a team member is consistently performing below the minimum requirement despite concerted efforts at either coaching, counseling or both it will inevitably become necessary to begin the process of formal counseling, verbal warnings, written warnings and finally dismissal. Exercising awareness and proactively providing support immediately after critical symptoms are observed can obviate the need to enter this zone altogether.
In all cases it is important that the person undergoing coaching or counseling is actively engaged in the process and takes ownership of the remediation plan. Ownership promotes commitment. In the case of coaching it pays dividends to turn this into a continual process through weekly 1-on-1s or similar meeting. Done right, this only needs 30 minutes per person per week.
Adopting the right approach at the right time ensures high-performers stay challenged and others embrace the self-directed growth mind-set necessary to reach their true potential.
Depending how proactive you want to be, you can spend quality time growing capability or, alternatively, managing disappointments.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda, Jedi Master