How to Coach a Struggling Employee  

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As a leader, you’re charged with looking after all the employees on your team—the ones who are doing well and the ones who are struggling. Most leaders are drawn to those who already excel at their job—it’s always gratifying to help a gifted colleague move ahead—but some of your most important work will be with those who are struggling.

Here are some steps to take when an employee is underperforming or experiencing problems at work:

identify the issue. Before you can come up with a plan for improvement, you need to back up and discover the root cause of the problem. When you do, you can understand the context of what’s happening and work together to develop solutions that will work over the long haul.

Communicate clearly. Telling someone they aren’t meeting expectations is bound to be an uncomfortable conversation. You can couch it in a positive light by remembering that as their leader, you’re responsible for their success, and you’re offering candid feedback to help them improve and become more self-aware.

Focus on facts. Getting negative feedback is never easy for anyone; people often take it personally and react defensively. To help prevent those reactions, focus on the facts by giving clear examples of times when the employee failed to meet the requirements of the job. Explain how these behaviors affect not just the rest of the team but also the employee’s own future—including promotions, recognition, raises or bonuses, and job security. Be compassionate and stay as positive as possible.

Work on a solution together. Don’t tell your struggling employee, “This is how it’s going to be.” Instead, work with them to come up with a solution together. Giving your employee a chance to take ownership of the situation is empowering and provides extra motivation for improvement.

Keep expectations clear. Make sure the employee understands what’s expected in the future. This step may take the form of a structured performance improvement plan that sets out what must change for the employee to remain part of the organization.

Praise efforts. Behavior responds to encouragement and rewards. It is important to give praise and recognition for the efforts the employee puts in as they work to move in the right direction. If the employee is improving, let them know their hard work is not going unnoticed.

Hire a coach. Many leaders have coaches themselves, and they know how useful a coaching relationship can be—especially one that brings in a point of view from outside the organization. A good coach can help the employee process situations from the past week to work toward better results in the future.

Follow up. Once you’ve formulated a plan, create a schedule for regular follow-ups to assess the employee’s progress and address any challenges that may have come up.

Lead from within: Great leadership is having the ability to facilitate movement in the needed direction and have people feel good about it, so that even a struggling employee can feel empowered.


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After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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