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Coach’s corner: Is “poor” performance ever the boss’s fault?

July 2, 2013

By David Vaughn

Have you ever been asked to coach someone who’s not performing well in spite of a great interview, outstanding relationship and emotional intelligence scores, and a solid record?

Expectations were high when he or she was hired, but his/her work is not getting done despite putting in long hours, and his/her assignments when “done” are incomplete or don’t take advantage of the knowledge of his/her more experienced colleagues. Most troubling, his/her team is rapidly losing confidence. And to further complicate matters, his/her pre-hire behavior/personality qualitative assessments (i.e. The Hogan, Myers Briggs, DISC, etc.) are not being validated by observed behavior.

So, as a coach, the question is: Is this person’s performance problem simply the result of a bad hire? Or, is there a personal situation that has knocked the person off balance? It could be a broken relationship, or a death or another situation that has escaped the view of the organization.

If your answer is a confident “no” to each of these possibilities, it is possible that your coachee’s “poor” performance could be due to the leadership and the work climate he was hired into.

Let me explain. My anchor in the development and sustainability of a high performance organization is the principle that work climates that bring out every employee’s best effort must be created by the leadership. By this I mean when leaders create “sunny days” that are full of clarity and great experiences, their people can be expected to be fully engaged and to give their very best effort in all situations.

This is in contrast to leaders who create “stormy days” that are cloud covered (i.e. fuzzy direction) and downright full of negative energy that resembles the aftermath of a tornado going through a neighborhood. Rather than being engaged, people actually disengage and work just to survive the storm. As a seasoned leader, there is no doubt that I’ve been “that guy.” It was not until I received feedback regarding my leadership style and its impact on the work climate I was creating that my eyes were opened.

It is with this background that I suggest that sometimes “poor” performance can be due to the work climate created by the leader. In short, it may be the coachee’s leader’s style that is causing the person to perform below expectations.

There are two ways to approach a situation like this. One way is to “coach” the leader on how to bring out the best in your coachee, as I was coached. The second is to help your coachee understand and accept how to best perform in the climate he or she is in. I prefer the second option because past experience has taught me that a “tough boss” scenario can actually be an opportunity for a coachee to develop vital strengths that will serve him or her well in the future.

In many cases I’ve found that having a “perfect boss” may make it easier to succeed in the short term, but a “tough boss” that’s handled appropriately can help a coachee develop into a “passionate champion” or an A+ employee who requires little or no direction, can be relied upon to think strategically, and thus leave the “good” or “tough” boss free to focus on his or her role.

Think for a moment. Michael Phelps didn’t earn Olympic Gold by taking an easy path. So if your coachee is working with a boss some people would avoid, helping him/her see it as an opportunity to develop into a “passionate champion” who can deliver results and never look for the secure/safe easy out (no matter what the leadership is like) could be the most important lesson he or she ever learns.

So let’s hear it. Do you have a difficult boss? Are you able to see your situation as an opportunity? A good coach can help.

More about David

Vaughn_David_4cDavid Vaughn is a Vice President, Principal Consultant, and leader of Linkage’s Coaching practice. His recent work has focused on helping clients navigate matrix management, deploy a coaching culture, and build an internal consulting discipline.

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