by Jason Lauritsen
17 Feb 2021
How to Coach a Change-Resistant Under Performer
Over the past 20 years of my career, there is one issue that keeps coming up as a daunting challenge for managers. And regardless of where you work, how your work, or the type of people you supervise, you can’t escape it:
How do you address a performance issue with an employee who refuses to change?
The question doesn’t always sound exactly like this. Sometimes, it’s a question about tenured employees who are set in their ways. Other times, it’s about managing a former peer who isn’t respecting your new authority.
It’s a dilemma. You need the employee to change in some way to meet expectations. But, the employee isn’t motivated or interested in changing. Something has to give.
Start With You
Successfully addressing these situations starts with stepping back and thinking a bit differently. Traditionally, we think of addressing performance issues in terms of fixing the employee. Once we correct what’s wrong with the employee, they will perform better. In truth, it may not be the employee who needs fixing.
In a recent webinar, I shared a process for how to confront performance and behavior issues. This process is based on how farmers and gardeners approach their work.
When raising crops or gardens, the most important work throughout the season is cultivation. This involves making sure that the plants have whatever they need to grow and removing any obstacles that might prevent growth. Watering, weeding, and applying fertilizer are all examples of cultivation.
Farmers and gardeners know with certainty that when they put a seed in the ground, it will grow and reach its potential so long as it has what it needs and nothing gets in its way. Growth and performance are genetically programmed. It’s the default setting for plants.
This is true for human beings as well. When you consider how we learn to walk and talk and interact with others as children, simply by being around others, it’s hard to argue against the fact that our default setting is for growth and performance.
Our opportunity as managers is to develop a mindset of cultivation and bring that to everything we do. A cultivation mindset most simply reminds us that performance is the default setting. Since people seldom intentionally choose failure, if an employee is underperforming, it’s because they’re either missing something they need or they have an obstacle in their way.
Said another way, the cultivation mindset means accepting accountability for the fact that when an employee is underperforming, it’s on you. The employee doesn’t need to be fixed, but your management approach does.
The Steps to Take
When you adopt a cultivation mindset as a manager, confronting a performance issue with an employee is about diagnosing what the employee needs that they don’t have or what obstacles they are facing, then addressing those gaps.
When the employee seems resistant to the change there are two likely causes. Here’s how to determine what’s going on and how to fix it.
1. Are expectations clear?
The most common cause of performance issues at work is a lack of clarity about expectations. If an employee is unclear about exactly what you expect of them, it’s difficult to meet those expectations.
To diagnose if this is the case, prior to your next meeting with the employee, ask them to write down and send to you what they understand to be the three most important success measures in their role. You should do the same.
Then, when the employee sends you their list, and you compare it to yours, it should become immediately apparent if you’re aligned or not. If there’s clear alignment, then your issue isn’t a lack of clarity. If the two lists are different, this is where you start.
To address this, work with the employee to document the expectations of their role. If the challenge is behavioral, then work on describing acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
In my teaching, I always remind people of what I call the golden rule of management: “If it matters, write it down.” Committing expectations to writing forces clarity for both you and the employee. Do this with the employee and keep refining the written expectations until you are both crystal clear on what they mean.
2. Are consequences clear?
This is where the more challenging work begins. In many cases, when an employee flatly refuses to change even when they know they are falling short of expectations, it’s because they perceive no consequences related to that choice.
Why that is the case isn’t important. It could be a failure on your part to create accountability in the past, or maybe you inherited the issue from the employee’s past managers. None of that matters. It’s what you do next that counts.
In this circumstance, the key as a manager is to create a choice for the employee. Be honest about the fact that arriving in a situation where this conversation is needed isn’t the employee’s fault. But make it clear that things are changing now.
There are two paths forward for the employee. One is to get committed to meeting expectations, whatever change or adjustments that requires. The other is deciding that they don’t want to be in the role any longer.
The most important part of the conversation is to ensure the employee knows that there is no third option to stay where they are today. That should never have been an option, and you can take accountability for allowing that to happen. But that option is now off the table.
Once they make their intention clear, it’s imperative to create a plan together. It will either be a plan for getting back on track with performance or a plan for finding a new job—internally or elsewhere. In both cases, be supportive.
I know what you’re thinking: what if they won’t choose? That, too, is a choice. If they won’t decide, then they have chosen to accelerate option two. Engage your HR team and start the process to help them move on.
The worst thing you can do in this situation is nothing. Inaction is what got you into the situation in the first place. If you have to fire an employee, it will be the last resort and only after you have given the individual every chance to recover. It will be their choice.
Don’t worry; most people come around pretty quickly once they recognize that change is no longer optional. Once the employee starts moving in the right direction, shower them with appreciation and recognition. You’ll likely see renewed energy emerge from the employee.
Bet on Your People
Adopting a cultivation mindset as a manager is liberating. It means you can look at your people with trust and confidence that they will succeed if you do your job.
It means that you fully accept accountability for your team’s performance, assuming that when they fail or don’t behave as expected, that’s on you. When you do this, it changes your relationship with your team.
They will trust you more because they know that if something happens or they fall short, you won’t blame them or accuse them of not trying hard enough. Instead, you’ll be there to help them figure out how to get better.
Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author, and leadership trainer who will challenge you to think differently. Jason is the author of two books, Unlocking High Performance: How to use performance management to engage and empower employees to reach their full potential and Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships.