Writen by Pat Wiklund

Fred, the new manager, was working with Grant, an employee who wasn't getting his work done. Fred had delegated work to Grant, and Grant hadn't made progress on the project for almost 4 months . . . long past the due date.

For the most part, Fred had done well with the first two steps of delegation and checking. He just wasn't acting on Grant's lack of performance.

The key point in the process that determines if Fred needs to have a coaching or counseling session with Grant is when Fred asks if Grant needs anything from Fred to make the project happen now. If Grant says anything but nothing, then Fred had coaching work to do. If Grant replies that there's nothing he needs from Fred, time for a counseling conversation.

Coaching is needed when an employee can't do the work he needs to do. Counseling is needed when an employee won't do the work he is assigned.

Typical situations where counseling is needed include ongoing poor performance, an insecure employee who is skilled, but doesn't do as well as could be expected, an employee who is allowing personal problems to adversely impact performance, or employees who have an "attitude." They feel angry, frustrated, vindictive, unappreciated or unrewarded, and they get back at the company by choosing not to work.

Like with performance problems that require coaching, sometimes Rule #1 is at work. Managers have inadvertently "rewarded" employees into non-performance. The manager has allowed employees to "get away with" not performing, and the employee finds not working more rewarding than working. Sometimes doing the work is punishing or not rewarding: there's nothing in it for an employee to do a good job. Or, an employee may not have the authority to get the job done, or is expected to buck policy or the way it's always been done. Or, worst of all, good performance or bad performance, it just doesn't matter. No one seems to notice.

If any of these are true, time for a little rehab program for the manager, and even more work to bring the employee's behavior into line.

Fred has made the problem of Grant's poor performance worse by letting him "get away with" not getting his work done. Now he has catch up work to do.

Step one: Prepare for the conversation. If Grant suggests there's nothing Fred can do to help him get the work done, then it's clear one of two problems is going on: Grant either doesn't know how to do it and won't say he doesn't know; or Grant doesn't want to do it and has some belief he doesn't have to. Either of these means time for a counseling conversation.

Fred's preparations must include deciding if Grant is willing to address the issues, alternatives, and consequences of his poor performance. If Fred has any question about Grant's willingness to participate . . . time to check in with HR.

Step two: Counseling conversations start like coaching conversations: establish rapport with the employee, attend to the situation, and keep the context professional, not personal. Fred needs to be clear that this conversation with Grant is about his continued poor performance, and the need for resolution.

Step three: Set the context. Focus on behaviors, not intent, values, or motives. Fred's task is to keep the conversation focused on Grant's behavior, even if he is addressing attitude. So he can describe what he's seen, i.e. rolling eyes, tsk'ing in response to questions, shrugging when asked a direct question, rather than labeling or judging.

Step four: Solicit input from the employee. This is the time for Fred to listen to Grant's side of the situation. Fred needs to maintain professional boundaries and not get caught up in solving the Grant's problems for him. Attitude is Grant's problem. At some level, you can't insist employees think or feel a particular way. But, you can insist on performance.

Step five: Offer support while expecting a resolution. Keep the balance between sympathy and solutions. Fred can't offer to fix it for Grant. Grant needs to take care of his personal problems himself. This means Grant has to do more than 50% of the work towards the solution. Set a benchmark date for resolution, and commitment to expectations.

Managers can get into difficulties with counseling conversations in a number of ways. The first, and most deadly, is by not checking with HR for assistance and policy/procedure clarification. Counseling conversations are designed to resolve issues that interfere with performance, they aren't a time to play shrink. Remember you are not running a mental health clinic, and even if you were, you wouldn't be treating an employee. Avoid interpreting, or telling the employee what the real problem is, even if you are convinced your perspective is the real truth. They won't hear it and they just get frustrated and annoyed.

With either coaching conversations or counseling conversations, the goal is improving employee performance and getting the work done. If problems continue, time to have a more serious conversation with your HR rep. It may be time to move to the next level.

Patricia Wiklund Ph.D. works with managers who are challenged with a difficult employee or colleague, and organizations that need to get back on track to effectiveness and productivity. Start increasing your management and leadership skills with her new audio coaching program on Emotional Intelligence: The Leadership Edge. Just click here: Contact Pat at


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