Management comes with many challenges that can test the most seasoned business professional. One of the most difficult and frustrating challenges for any manager, however, is working with difficult employees. Working with difficult employees is an emotional tug-of-war experience that is stressful for the manager and employee alike. Often, by the time the manager is able to rectify the situation through voluntary or involuntary termination of the employee, the damage to office morale and overall productivity is great. The good news is that managers do have an alternative they can use to get a better result from their difficult employees. By following a 7 step, coaching model, managers can build an effective working relationship with their difficult employees and motivate them to improve their performance. The goal of this model is to return the employee to productivity—not punish the employee or begin dismissal procedures. It is not disciplinary. A “how-to discussion” on each of the 7 steps of this coaching model follows:

1. Create A Positive Tone For The Coaching Meeting

For a coaching session to be successful, it must begin positively. Several activities are important for this step. First, creating a cordial but business tone is important. This can be achieved by coaching the employee in private. This follows the management principle of praising in public and correcting in private. Few, if any, employees enjoy being verbally reprimanded in front of their peers.

Second, the manager needs to explain the purpose of the meeting in a friendly and non-accusatory manner. Avoiding inflammatory words is critical! Too often, coaching sessions are derailed by the manager’s poor choice of words in opening the meeting.

2. Describe Undesirable Employee Behavior In Factual But Neutral Terms

To keep a coaching session productive, a manager must describe the undesirable employee behavior in specific terms that do not further inflame the situation. The manager who tells her employee that he has a bad attitude, is moody, and is just generally unpleasant will only make the existing working situation worse. The better approach is to describe what a “bad attitude” looks like in neutral terms. Does the employee not return phone calls, miss deadlines, not show up at regularly scheduled meetings, produce inaccurate work, refuse to help co-workers, etc. All of these other descriptors of a “bad attitude” are more specific and less judgmental. Including some specific examples of undesirable behavior that the manager has personally observed herself is important for the credibility of the meeting. Voicing only what everyone else has told the manager and not what she has observed herself is less effective for coaching difficult employees.

Finally, the manager must have accurate and specific examples of the employee’s performance issues for discussion purposes. A manager who engages a difficult employee in a coaching session with “descriptions of undesirable behavior” that are erroneous and easily refuted will only make the situation worse.

3. Obtain Agreement From Employee That A Problem Exists

Once the manager has provided data to support her position about the employee’s performance gap, she will need to work with the employee to get him to agree that an issue exists. This often occurs when the manager reinforces her descriptions of the undesirable behavior in factual and neutral terms. (It is difficult for an employee to continue to refute specific instances of not returning telephone calls, missed deadlines, missed meetings, etc.) Once the manager and employee agree that a problem exists, the manager is ready to work with the employee on the next step of this model.

4. Determine Reasons For Employee Performance Gaps

Asking the employee to discuss the reasons for his performance gaps will provide valuable information to the manager. For the manager, this step will point out any actions that the manager may need to take, herself, to address relevant organizational issues impacting the employee. These managerial actions might involve other team members, organizational resources, or other factors. For the employee, it begins the groundwork for getting him to take responsibility for improving his actions.

To facilitate this step, the manager will need to use active listening skills, ask open-ended questions, and paraphrase what the employee communicates. This will begin a healthy two-way communication with the difficult employee.

5. Require Employee To Help Own The Solution

The manager must avoid the urge to tell the employee what he must do to solve his performance issues. Instead, she should engage him in “owning the solution” for his performance issues. She can use an open-ended questioning approach to coach the employee to find his own solution. It is important that she not criticize or make judgmental statements about any solutions the employee suggests. Instead, through a series of guided questions and paraphrasing, she can help him find a solution. Once this has occurred, the manager can add other elements to the solution to make it viable for what she needs from this employee. The important point of this step is that the employee needs to have joint ownership with his manager in coming up with the solution.

6. Use WIIFM To Motivate Employee To Act Responsibly

The acronym WIIFM stands for What’s In It For Me. Appealing to an employee’s WIIFM is a powerful motivation tool. The manager should use this opportunity to discuss positive outcomes for the employee by appealing to what he values. For example, if the employee values career growth, the manager might explain to the employee that improving his performance will allow him to be more competitive for other positions in the unit or company.

7. Summarize Meeting And Define Next Steps

In this last step, the manager summarizes the meeting and the agreements she and her employee have reached. She also defines key actions and time frames that are necessary for the employee to improve his performance. Finally, she outlines her plan to follow up with her employee to assist him in his improvement efforts. Like the first step, it is important that the manager end the meeting on a positive tone.

The 7-step coaching model consists of a private meeting between the manager and the employee. Its success depends on the manager’s ability to communicate effectively and facilitate employee engagement. Through active listening and facilitation, describing behavior in factual but neutral terms, and appealing to the values of the employee, a manager can begin the process of establishing a relationship of trust with her difficult employee. While this model may not work for all situations, it can be useful when coaching—not corrective action—is desired.

Business Consulting Solutions LLC. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Robert Tanner is President of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, the author of Why Smart People Fail at Management (available at, a Certified Change Management Consultant, and an Adjunct Professor of Management. He provides training and development, managerial and organizational assessments, and management coaching services. With over 20 years of management experience, Robert is a seasoned business practitioner. His clients include Fortune 100 firms, start-up firms, and public agencies. He is a frequent seminar trainer on management and leadership topics and was featured in Smart Business Magazine. Robert is professionally certified to administer a variety of behavioral and psychological type assessments including Myers Briggs Type Indicator™ (MBTI®), Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, Interaction Styles®, Temperament Theory®, and Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior™ (FIRO-B®). If you enjoyed this article, visit the Management is a Journey blog and join the management discussion. To learn more about his professional services, visit Business Consulting Solutions LLC.
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