Why some employees are difficult to coach

Employees vary in their perception of what it means to get feedback, research finds

By Claudine Kapel

Have you ever tried to coach an employee, only to have your feedback fall on deaf ears?

Or perhaps you hear from leaders that managing performance is especially challenging with particular employees.

New research by PsychTests AIM offers some interesting insights on why some people are difficult to coach.

In their analysis of data collected through the company’s coachability test, PsychTests researchers compared people who prefer to lead (Leaders), those who prefer to follow (Followers), and those who are comfortable both leading and following, depending on the situation (Adapters).

“In general, the overall coachability scores were fairly high, indicating that most people are quite open to coaching,” reports PsychTests. Among the three groups identified, however, the Followers were the least willing to be coached, while the Adapters were the most open.

Some of the findings of PsychTests’ analysis (with scores reported on a scale from zero to 100) indicated:

  • Followers are the most willing to take direction (score of 75, compared to 65 for Leaders and 74 for Adapters)
  • Followers are the least comfortable admitting their faults and weaknesses (score of 61, compared to 66 for Leaders and 71 for Adapters)
  • Followers are the least capable of handling criticism (score of 68, compared to 71 for Leaders and 76 for Adapters)
  • Followers are the least willing to ask for help, even when they need it (score of 65, compared to 69 for Leaders and 74 for Adapters)
  • Followers are the least open to learning and improvement (score of 78, compared to 82 for Leaders and 85 for Adapters).

So why do Followers find it harder to accept coaching?

“The answer lies in their perspective – what coaching means to them,” says PsychTests. “Followers seem to have a bit of a self-confidence issue. Being criticized makes them feel weak, incompetent, or incapable; they feel a little insecure about their job and they simply get scared when they have to admit a mistake or a weakness.”

When you offer coaching or training to Followers, “they may take it as an indication that something is wrong and that’s why they need help,” says PsychTests. “The Adapters, on the other hand, see coaching as an opportunity. They recognize that in the long-run, it helps them to become better employees and better people.”

While most Followers want to learn, grow, and improve, PsychTests’ research indicates they don’t have the same level of openness as Adapters. For example:

  • 82 per cent of Adapters actively seek out learning opportunities, compared to 56 per cent of Followers
  • 91 per cent of Adapters recognize that even negative criticism can be helpful, compared to 77 per cent of Followers
  • 57 per cent of Adapters seek out feedback from their manager, compared to 37 per cent of Followers
  • 84 per cent Adapters actively participate in their performance evaluations (taking notes, asking questions, etc.) compared to 65 per cent of Followers
  • 83 per cent of Adapters report when they listened to feedback in the past, it helped them become a better person, compared to 65 per cent of Followers.

The research findings offer some helpful insights on how to make your organization’s performance management process more effective. Helping managers understand that employees may have different perceptions of what feedback means can help make performance discussions a little easier.

PsychTests suggests managers can help Followers become more receptive to coaching by recognizing their insecurities and acknowledging their potential. “If you want to develop your Followers, make sure they understand that your company wants to invest in them because they are worth it, that it is an opportunity rather than punishment.”

The point is just as applicable when coaching managers. When they better understand the lens they use to view coaching and feedback on a personal level, they’ll likely be more open to management development efforts while also having a better understanding of where their employees are coming from.

Those are conversations worth having – especially if they help unblock quality feedback and coaching.

Claudine Kapel

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a human resources consulting firm specializing in compensation design, performance management, and employee communications. Claudine is also the co-author of The HR Manager’s Guide to Total Rewards and Straight Talk on Managing Human Resources.
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