is your problem employee coachable?

When an employee is struggling to produce results, managers often aren’t sure whether they should invest time in coaching the person and trying to build their skills, or whether it’s simply not the right fit. On one hand, people can and do improve their work skills all the time; on the other hand, though, some skill deficiencies can’t be fixed with the amount of time typically available on the job. How can you tell which you’re facing?

Here are five steps to figuring out whether to invest development energy in coaching your team member or whether you might be looking at a more fundamental mismatch.

1. Think about whether the issue is a fairly straightforward skill or a more fundamental talent or trait. For example, you can usually teach someone to use a particular type of software or help them practice a sales technique. But other talents and core traits – like strong writing, critical thinking, or attention to detail – tend to be deeply rooted and difficult for a manager to change.

2. Think about whether the area where the person is struggling is one that’s fundamental to succeeding in the job, or whether it’s more of a “nice to have.” For example, if you have a shy programmer who has trouble connecting with others, her shyness probably doesn’t interfere with her ability to do her job well. But if she were in a heavily client-facing job, it might impact the core results she was able to get in her job.

So ask yourself how important the area you’re concerned about is to a successful performance in the role. When a problem is about fundamental traits or talents that are heart of the requirements of the role, you might eventually succeed in generating small improvements, but the person probably won’t ever perform at the high level you need.

3. Reflect on what the staff member has done with the guidance you’ve given so far. Does the person have a track record of taking a small amount of assistance and putting it into practice in a way that leads to notable progress? Or have they struggled to apply the help you’ve given so far? When someone is able to take advantage of the development energy you invest, it makes more sense to invest that energy than when you haven’t seen evidence that it pays off in the way you need.

4. Be honest with yourself about what it would take to get the person’s skills where you need them. For example, if you might feel that if you were able to spend multiple hours each week with the person, coaching her and mentoring her, you’d be able to build her skills to the level needed – but that might not be the right use of your time. Managers also sometimes over-rely on sending struggling team members to outside trainings. Trainings can help build very specific skills (like learning to use a particular software) but rarely are as effective when the problem is one of core talents (like writing or communication skills).

5. Think about how clearly you’ve communicated your expectations to the person. If you haven’t already clearly told the person what you need and where they’re falling short, they may not even realize that they need to focus on improving in that area. Simply realizing it may not be enough, but it’s a crucial first step if improvement is ever to be possible … and if it does turn out that the fit just isn’t the right one, this kind of discussion will lay the groundwork for figuring that out without blindsiding the person too.


I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Jules the First*

    Very timely – I’m grappling with this one at the moment myself. My latest colleague is struggling to write well and missing fairly hefty details (think making notes to herself ‘Jane to update this’ in the body of a document, and then forgetting to remove those commenta before sending it to the client).

    If we could fix attention to detail, I think I could live with the other issues…but (as a detail nerd myself) I’m at a loss – how do you coach attention to detail, apart from pointing out the mistakes and reminding her regularly?

    1. Evie*


      Give her a checklist or help her make one that includes things like “Ctrl+ F search for own name in document” and “read document out loud”

      She can’t learn to be detail oriented but she can be oriented to look for details.

      1. Liz*

        But if the colleague doesn’t use the checklist, or only uses it sometimes, it doesn’t help. I have a colleague who also struggles, and no matter how often I say some version of: “Use the checklist/follow the documentation/that procedure is documented in X” he doesn’t remember and is not consistent in following the instructions.

    2. Revolver Rani*

      I don’t know if this would work for someone else, but in cases where I am worried about my own attention to detail (such as projects that are complex and technical but not especially interesting or creative), I find that charting for myself a process – in the form of a detailed project plan or check-list – can help ensure none of the details get missed. And by detailed, I really mean detailed – a step by step plan of how I am going to complete and verify each task that is required for the project, at whatever level of granularity is necessary. This can even include steps that take just a few minutes to do, if there is a danger that I might forget them while working quickly or skip them if I am bored and tempted to cut corners.

      So, maybe you could sit down with an employee and walking them through the creation of a process or plan that explicitly includes the kind of validation details that the person is likely to miss. (Like, “search for notes to Jane before finalizing document”.) Someone who knows that they tend to have trouble with details might even appreciate a well-defined process for corralling all the squirrely details they are sometimes prone to missing. (I know you’ve mentioned a colleague; not being a manager might mean you can only suggest this, rather than impose it. But if the person seems to want help, offering a process than can use can be really helpful.)

      1. justsomeone*

        I do this for routine things that I do monthly. It’s easy to think that I’ve already done a step because they all start to blur together after doing this every month for three years.

      2. Jules the First*

        Thanks to both of you for the advice…

        In terms of our relationship, it’s a tricky one – technically, we have the same job title, but she doesn’t have anywhere near the same skills (this is what happens when you let someone hire for the team who doesn’t have the faintest clue how to do the job). I manage the rest of the team (though my control-freak boss insists on retaining hiring power…though he makes me fire the lousy ones) and in practice I’m managing her as well – she has her weekly one-on-ones with me where my one-on-ones happen with the CEO, and people come to me with requests for the department. It’s a charming pickle – I’m being held responsible for the quality of her work, but have not been given the authority to manage her performance.

        1. AE*

          It depends on whether the same kind of mistakes come up and whether the person sees it as a problem. If they are concerned, they will respond to tips from a colleague. You can phrase it like “I have started using red font for notes to myself so I can find them later.”

          It’s also useful to remember that error detection is a skill that improves with time. That will make it easier not to be annoyed by the errors made by someone who is younger in the position.

        2. Kay*

          I think you’ve just identified the real source of the problem: your boss. Have you talked about this with him? Clarify your role and responsibilities re: managing Jane, decide on some steps you’re going to take, then follow up with him after a pre-determined amount of time to look at whether she’s making improvements or not. It may help to make a list of what kinds of strengths/abilities the job requires vs. what Jane needs to improve on, as well as the measurable improvements she would have to make in order to bring her up to speed.

    3. SRB*

      Ahh, I was the Jane once. I’m sure it was quite a headache for my manager. A few things that helped:

      1. CHECKLISTS!!!!!!!!
      2. Make notes to self in “Comments” bubbles in Word or in tracked changes. It’s easy to scan through the document for “Next Comment” to see what’s left. And when you delete the last one, the little bar on the right goes away so you know!
      3. If not 2, highlight things in an OBSCENE NEON color like garish blue. Yellow is basically invisible to me, but you bet I’ll see neon green.
      4. CHECKLISTS!!!!!!!!

      Checklists are the greatest. It also helps the Janes of the world understand what your expectations are. “Format the document” is not helpful. “Make sure all pages and exhibits are numbered correctly and in order, the name of the document is in the lower right of all footers, every table uses the same color for headers, all font is the same type and size” is vastly more helpful. I had to make my checklists myself through trial and error and error and error because my (initial) manager refused to give me instructions until after I messed up at reading her mind.

  2. bibliovore*

    Read document aloud is great advice. Also- accept that there will be errors and get a second pair of eyes on the document before it goes out.

    1. Jules the First*

      I wish! The problem is that we hired her because I don’t have time to set eyes on everything that goes out, so having to double check her work rather negates her value in the first place.

  3. Jennifer*

    Oh god, this is my life. I have been working on a project for umpteen years and the other two people now assigned to “help” me on it are absolutely awful at proofreading it. They have been trained. They have training paperwork out the wazoo. They have been REtrained every year in how to do it. However, (a) they’re both older coworkers and maybe don’t literally see so well for proofreading tiny text we can’t enlarge in the first place, (b) Project X has gotten more complicated from year to year so I’m sure that’s not helping, and (c) one of them in particular is about a year away from retirement and has had health problems that probably have not been so beneficial to her brain. Both of them aren’t super great at proofreading on other things either, but they’re still better at proofreading things that aren’t this. Future Retiree in particular is not bothering to proofread at all. Other coworker as far as I can tell is trying to proofread, though she’s still getting some things wrong. I am spending a lot of time fixing their mistakes when I find them, and I have ended up being the head of the complaints department about this, but I don’t have a way to stop them from processing things out with errors and I don’t trust them to fix their mistakes on their own when the complaints roll in. I probably spend 1-2 hours a day JUST fixing “mistakes” that weren’t even proofread and responding to complaints from our clientele that things weren’t done right. They also don’t work on it too much compared to me– we keep track of how many get done per week and I am probably doing 75% of the work–and that’s not even factoring in how much time I spend fixing the “mistakes.” I really, really can’t tell them they made 20-25 mistakes in a day as a peer who shares an office with them–it’d be completely demoralizing and I need to be liked here or else things get ugly.

    My boss is aware that they aren’t good at it (though I haven’t really pointed out recent developments of “8 of 10 things I’ve checked had mistakes” because I don’t think it’s going to do any good), I’ve had several conversations with her about it, and god knows she’s had conversations with them about it and especially about how they don’t work on it very much. However, after awhile, what the heck can you do? This job is all stick and no carrot so there’s no advantage to them trying to improve at it, and I don’t think they care too much anyway. God knows Future Retiree doesn’t and what can they do there anyway. My boss asks if they want more training/help and they say they’re fine. She doesn’t have time to stand over them nagging and bugging them to proofread on every single document, which I fear is what it would take. I really just wish I could take the work away from them because they’re not “helping” me, they’re only giving me more work because I have to fix everything they do wrong. I have zero hope that they are going to improve at working on X after three years and frankly, I don’t have the time or energy it would take to force the horse to drink when it doesn’t want to anyway. I no longer give a crap about “giving them a chance” or “learning opportunities” because when I let them learn, it wasn’t working. I don’t think my boss has that time or energy either.

    For the record: getting competent help other than these two is unlikely: I’ve been told that getting the competent coworker back even part time is an absolute no. We’ve managed to get a temp to help out on the very easiest part of X every year for a few months, but getting anyone else who can reliably proofread this stuff is a non-starter and even getting the temp every year is dubious. What I really wish I could do is straight up ask her to let me work on it all by myself without them, and I’m seriously debating asking to do that at our one-on-one next week. Just let me do Project X alone for half the year and divide the rest of our workload among them, since they can at least most of the time do that stuff well enough. I think we’d all be happier for it even if it adds another 25% to my workload by comparison. However, I suspect this kind of request is a no-no in the managerial world and would be considered super offensive to take the workload away from 2/3 of the people. But getting them to Do It Right is just not working and probably never going to work with the people, manpower, and time situation as is. This office tends to be insistent on making people work in areas they are not strong at, so I’m not sure if it would do any good or just get me more in trouble for saying something like this. I also don’t want to hurt their feelings–they’re nice people, they’re just really not good at doing X and I want to cry looking at how badly they do it. But I just don’t think there’s anything that can be done to make them proofread and after three years, I don’t see the point in wasting more energy trying to make them.

    1. Jules the First*

      Ah, Jennifer, that sounds like a real nightmare (but very nice to know I’m not alone in this situation!)

    2. Elsajeni*

      Oooof. It sounds like the workload-balance issues might make this difficult, but would it be possible to set it up so that, while they still work on the project, all Project X documents come to you for proofreading before they go out?

      1. Jennifer*

        Unfortunately, no, it’s literally impossible to stop them from processing them out before I can see them.

  4. One of the Annes*

    No advice. Just wanted to say that I’m so sorry you’re in this situation. Can you get another job?

  5. Jennifer*

    Hah, I’m trying.

    Honestly, things would be happier if they’d just shuffle/transfer the job responsibilities around here and be WILLING to do it based on who’s best suited for what.

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