The Return on Investment of Coaching for Poor Performers

August 16, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

Peter Drucker

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that my wife and I raise guide dog puppies for the blind. Our latest one is a beautiful lab named Enzo.  It’s particularly fun to watch all the guide dog puppies in training get together each month for their training–and ours!

Some seem like “naturals” and you just get a sense they will go on to become successful guide dogs.  Others you can spot early are likely to be destined for a “career change” (sometimes you can be surprised as they mature though!) as their current performance is in need for immediate correction if they are going to succeed.

With these puppies, what is required is Performance Improvement coaching.  The goal is simple–correct the current problem(s) contributing to poor overall performance on their quest for their future job.

In this particular coaching model, the focus is on immediate and significant performance improvement of behavior.  In organizations, these employees are often in the lower performing 10% that many companies might “vote off the island” or look for ways to progressively manage their weak performance.

Such poorly performing and low potential employees can cripple morale, interfere with team functioning, and take tremendous management time away from high performers.  Coaches who work with such employees typically have concrete and specific developmental action plans that support the efforts of management to “turn these employees around” and enhance current performance.

PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENT COACHING (Low Performance/Low Interpersonal Competence)

Clients demonstrating generally low job performance and also being characterized as less likable or interpersonally difficult can best be helped by utilizing a Performance Improvement model of coaching.  These clients are often offered coaching as a last resort before termination and outplacement by many organizations.

The use of outside coaching services should at least be questioned as these low performers typically show little return on investment for such interventions.

Coaches approached by companies asking for help with such employees should carefully contract with the client system to clarify potential issues around assessment, confidentiality, and the role of human resources in the coaching intervention.  They should also build in specific metrics of improvement in order to provide some indication of the effectiveness of the coaching engagement.

Often organizations believe that offering coaching services to these chronically poor performers will help minimize any possible wrongful termination lawsuit that could develop.  This is another reason that coaches should carefully structure the intervention if they decide to proceed with this type of client.  It is easy for coaches to feel “pressured” by the client’s manager, or even human resources, for his/her candid “evaluation” about the suitability or “fit” of the client.

Make sure that as a coach you don’t become a natural part of the progressive discipline process by simultaneously playing an evaluation and coaching role with the client system and client, respectively.  Too many non-experienced (and experienced) coaches have been tempted by these type of requests for help by an organization only to realize too late that the hidden agenda was not to truly help the client but to gather additional information confirming that he/she was a poor fit.

Performacne Improvement

Performance Improvement Coaching Strategies

  • Diagnose if the performance deficit is due to lack of knowledge, skills or motivation
  • Seek human resources consultation about documentation and their progressive discipline process
  • Set concrete performance goals and expectation
  • Seek ongoing feedback informally from internal customers and stakeholders about the client’s performance
  • Follow-up regularly with these individuals and “check in” to monitor and track their progress
  • Reinforce and reward desired behaviors
  • Evaluate specific behavior change to determine improvement of the coaching engagement

What we have learned raising guide dogs is that only about 40% to 50% of the puppies in training actually make it to become a service dog for the blind.

Some “wash out” during their training due to physical problems but the vast majority are just not a great “fit” with the stringent requirements to become a functioning guide dog.

Organizations can save a lot of time, money and effort by identifying their “poor fits” early on and looking for constructive ways to “return them to the employment gene pool.”  There really isn’t anything wrong to encourage them to move on to “shine” with a competitor of yours….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate

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  1. Eduardo says:

    Ken, your warning about hidden (and not so hidden) agendas, is a classical dilemma to the values of the HR consultant.
    It´s true some people are not good fit for one particular job, but variables like motivation, human relations (with leader, with team) and attributes of the job (supervision, autonomy, variability, etc.) are fundamental to human performance. The consultant must also analyze the system before concluding that the problem resides in the individual.

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