Hiding from performance review

In many organizations, people shy away from discussions about “performance problems.” Even the phrase “performance issue” is uncomfortable to many. Some people feel like those words are a bit too harsh, even in the business world. As a result, many coaching frameworks don’t really address “performance problems.” While coaching models like GROW are popular, its proponents like to frame performance coaching as a form of mentoring or consulting. We believe that it is difficult to run a business if you can’t talk to people about their performance in an honest and straightforward way. You shouldn’t tiptoe around opportunities for improvement, but this doesn’t mean you should be cruel either. The goal is to be open and skillful in your approach.

Importance of Coaching

In a study we conducted over three years, we discovered that 73% of people would prefer their leaders to coach them in a straightforward, open, and honest manner. People don’t like to guess at the issues if they aren’t achieving their objectives or working up to expectations.  Performance problems are abundant in organizations of all types but especially prevalent in highly competitive organizations that have to change rapidly to stay relevant and successful over the long term. In business, everyone needs to evolve, adapt, and improve.

Opportunities for Improvement

In order to survive and thrive, people need to have an open and honest coach who will call out opportunities for improvement or “OFIs.” Everyone has some OFIs; people who think they don’t aren’t stretching themselves enough. When we try to improve, we are likely to make mistakes, “dropping the ball” or experiencing letdowns in our performance. There are three main reasons why performance problems occur:

  1. A person experienced a lapse in concentration, got distracted, lost focus, or flat-out missed something important. Regardless of the cause, they own responsibility for the problem.
  2. Someone tries to stretch, learn, or experiment with something new and this new thing doesn’t work out as intended, resulting in performance problems. Again, it is a simple situation: someone knowingly tries something new and the effort falls short of the mark. The performer owns this problem, upset, or letdown but it should be discussed constructively. This is a great coaching moment. People can learn a lot if they are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with someone who will acknowledge the situation and keep it in perspective. Sometimes failure can be a good thing. I worked with one manager in the United Kingdom who said, “I like to ask people and talk to people about something they failed at every week. Since the business paid the tuition or cost of the failure, we might as well see what we can learn and improve for the next time.”
  3. The third reason people usually have performance problems is related to external circumstances. Sometimes there are forces or disruptions that were unanticipated and caused performance to decline. These forces are quite possibly unknowable and beyond a person’s sphere of control.

Positive Perspective of Performance Problems

Performance problems are opportunities to learn, grow, and change. Someone who has a performance problem isn’t a bad person; more often than not, they simply encountered a challenging situation. That said, performance problems do occasionally result from people being unhappy in their work.

Dealing With Negativitytalking at a desk

They may have a negative attitude about their task or assignment, or perhaps they dislike their leader or co-workers. In this situation, the person is acting intentionally or making a conscious decision to underperform. These scenarios and their causes are more deeply ingrained and finding the root cause and a solution will definitely be more challenging.

With this type of performance problem, you might encounter people who are more defensive or argumentative by nature. Sometimes they feel stuck. They don’t want to be where they are but haven’t confronted this reality yet and the leader or coach has to deal with the outcomes. When the person and his or her behavior is the heart of the matter, coaching for improvement can be especially difficult. In these cases, there is usually a fundamental mismatch between a person’s needs, preferences, or style and the work, team, or organization.

Under these circumstances, it is possible that no amount of coaching or dialogue will produce a satisfactory solution. There may not be a good way to work around the issue and the problem performer may need to find a completely different work environment—one that is a better fit for their needs and interests.

More on Coaching for Results

Part 2 of this blog series will focus on some of the factors that get in the way of effective coaching discussions, and in Part 3, we introduce a simple but effective coaching methodology that can be used in coaching discussions of all types—including those on performance problems like the ones we’ve described above. The coaching approach we’ve developed is clear, direct, honest, and time-efficient—all important considerations for busy coaches (and the people they coach). If you’d like to learn more about CMOE’s proven and time-tested approach to coaching, please reach out to us any time, find us on the web, or look for our newest book Coaching for Results: The 5 TIPS That Drive Performance.


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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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