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"Take me out coach, I'm not able to play" Identifying the Uncoachable

June 14, 2011

We’ve all heard of “coachable moments” – those day-to-day opportunities in between the annual reviews and big promotional decisions where you have the chance to mentor an individual contributor or other leader in the organization on how they can help the team.  In sports, you see it all the time, a coach grabs a player by the jersey, gets in the player’s face and very directly (and often colorfully) communicates how to improve.  So what do you do with the team member who doesn’t respond to these moments?  Former coaching great Lou Holtz had this to offer as a guide:

"Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated."

Easier said than done, Coach!  Still, every organization has a set of critical competencies (implicit or explicit) that define what they value from their contributors and leaders.  Yours probably lists things like “team player,” “cooperative/collaborative” and “continuous learner.”  Staying ahead of the game in today’s organizations requires being nimble enough to adapt to change.  To do that, you need people who can set down the way they’ve always done things and pick up a new way.  However, it’s not enough that your people are comfortable with change and flexible in response to a dynamic work environment, they also have to be coachable.  If they can’t be coached, they’re not going to change easily, and that can mean disaster for you and your team.

Operating on the sage advice we have from Coach Holtz, how then do we identify the uncoachable?  Here are five facets of personality to look at in your team members.

  • How well do they tolerate criticism? Do they tend to view negative feedback as a personal attack?  How well do performance reviews go when you have something to tell the contributor about their development?

  • Are they naturally defensive? Do they get offended easily?  Sometimes a contributor hides behind being self- assured so they never have to change their opinions.  Perhaps they are unable to change because to do so would be to accept “defeat” in the face of an “attack.”

  • How do they do with humility? Can they admit their mistakes? How often do you hear the person apologizing?  Do they come across as overly-confident?  Accepting shortcomings in oneself is a big part of emotional maturity; those that can’t deal with conflict like adults are going to struggle to learn like adults.

  • Are they a skeptic? Does your team member seem to be critical or fault finding, cynical, irritable and/or mistrustful of others?  If so then people will tend to avoid working with them (including you) because they take everything personally and often retaliate when they feel wronged.

  • Do they act in a passive-aggressive manner? Do they seem cooperative on the surface, but end up expressing themselves indirectly (passive) and in often nasty ways (aggressive).  Are they resistant to team activities or team goals?  The procrastination, tardiness and stubbornness all add up to a poor team player that is difficult to manage.

If you think that you have someone that fits this profile, then you probably need to have a “moment with your uncoachable.”  As individual contributors become leaders in your organization, the need to be coachable becomes increasingly important.  Identifying this developmental roadblock early can save you a lot of misery.  And for the uncoachable player, it can be a career-saver.  More broadly, conducting periodic developmentally-focused executive assessments will help you identify those that are best meant to coach and be coached.  And that’s what the big win is all about.

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Drew Brock, Ph.D.