How not to motivate or coach your employees

Ditch the diagnosis; instead, define excellence in the workplace and tie it to an outcome for improved performance

Dear Bob ...

I have a problem employee -- I'll call her "Angie" because I never liked Angie Dickinson, and I'm at the point where I can't stand "Angie" either.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Whether you're the employee or manager, it's never a good idea to point fingers at work, so stop blaming your predecessor for your company's problems. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis's Advice Line newsletter. ]

It probably isn't her fault, either. I suspect she is ADHD and probably has Asperger's besides. She's clearly very smart, but she just can't stay focused on the task at hand. Instead, she's constantly making "helpful" suggestions -- to her coworkers, to me, to my peers, and even once to my boss (!).

While her attention is so strongly focused on how everyone else can improve, her own tasks don't get done on time. Often, when she does finish them, she hasn't done a particularly good job on them.

I'm hesistant to approach HR about this because I'm concerned it might turn into an ADA issue. But I can't continue with her the way things are, either.

Any suggestions?

- Coaching, unsuccessfully

Dear Coaching ...

First suggestion: Either change professions or stop psychoanalyzing. Your job is to lead, not to diagnose -- or at least not to diagnose in terms of disorders and syndromes. Every leader has to try to figure out what's driving employees, so as to do the best job possible of motivating and coaching them, but that isn't the same as attaching pop-psych buzzwords to them.

And from the sound of it, you're attaching the wrong pop-psych buzzwords. From what you describe, the right buzzword is "projection." It's what people do who take their own failings and instead of dealing with them, they see them in everyone else. My guess is that Angie is deeply unsure of her ability to succeed in her own role. Instead of getting her assignments finished -- where you, she, and everyone else would understand how her work stands up -- she takes on the much safer role of critic.

It really doesn't matter what's driving her. What matters is how you're coaching her. My opinion: What she needs to understand, and you have to help her understand, is that no matter how acute her observations might be regarding everyone else's performance, nobody will pay any attention to what she has to say unless they first respect her competence at her own work.

It's the personal equivalent to a principle of organizational dynamics (it's guideline No. 7 of the "Keep the Joint Running" manifesto, in fact): Before you can be strategic, you have to be competent.

As is always the case when providing "constructive coaching" (management-speak for telling an employee it's time to shape up), assure Angie you're confident she's capable of excellent work. Given that she misses deadlines frequently, it wouldn't hurt to remind her that undelivered is a defect, and in many cases, it's worse than something being wrong in a finished product.

Also, acquaint her with a principle that you are, in principle, violating in having this conversation with her: Very few people have any interest in unsolicited advice. It's a waste of time and effort, and given that her continued employment is in jeopardy because she so frequently doesn't complete her own assignments, wasting time and effort isn't a very good choice.

As you are violating the no-unsolicited-advice principle, and as Angie is a chronic fault-finder who will undoubtedly spot this flaw in your logic, you'll be well off to avoid calling this a coaching session. What you're doing instead is informing her, as her manager, of the choices available to her and their likely outcomes.

It's up to her to decide which of those choices to make.

- Bob

This story, "How not to motivate or coach your employees," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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