The Dirty Dozen. Why Coaching Sometimes Breaks Down in the Heat of Battle

The Dirty Dozen. Why Coaching Sometimes Breaks Down in the Heat of Battle

An insidious vacuum seems to be sucking the air from many otherwise great companies these days – and the tug is doing a lot more than compromise worker effectiveness – it’s literally creating a potential death spiral for a great many careers.


The blood running in the streets created by The Black Hole – it’s an eerie iridescent strain of deep crimson and dollar green…and it’s choking the life out of our economic future.


Now, here’s the scary part – few organizations seem to know what’s happening or why. Even fewer have taken the time to diagnose it – assuming perhaps that the wounds aren’t real or will simply begin to heal spontaneously.


The scourge of our 21st century – when it comes to American work force effectiveness – may not come from global competition, cyber attacks, data fraud, environmental disasters, climate change, or even geopolitical uncertainty.


Each of the external risks above are very real – but the argument could be made the greatest challenge will likely come from within – the numbing disengagement of so many workers who have become the career equivalent of walking zombies.


The frightening part about all of this – much of the problem might be best described as self-mutilation.


The Disease


Gallup’s work in identifying the scope of the apocalypse is shocking:

  • Employee disengagement at around 70% of the work force
  • The cost to the U.S. economy EACH year – somewhere between $450 and $550 billion


The Primary Diagnosis and Its Cause


How did we get here?


Gallup’s big reveal – the immediate difference maker as regards employee engagement – the boss or supervisor. The fortunate few that happen to report to an effective leader are far more immune to zombification. Consider:

  • Engaged teams post 17% higher productivity than disengaged versions
  • Engaged teams post 21% greater profitability than their walking dead counterparts
  • Engaged teams post less than half the turnover


No surprises here. You work for a great coach you want to play. You work for a mediocre coach and you may gradually lose the will to live – or at least to work!


So, What Happened to Coaching?


Somewhere, somehow we lost our way on what leaders must do beyond everything else – successfully coach their followers. Over the course of three decades in leadership I’ve been able to develop my own version of a Coaching Executional Analysis Tool to help leaders and companies better define the problem and its causes. Here are some of the insights gleaned – I call them The Coaching Dirty Dozen – and they encompass many of the fracture points for most companies.


Coaching often breaks down because:


  1. We made it too complicated. Multiple coaching “models” – and more than a few “flavor of the month” approaches. Some companies shift easily every several years to the latest hot version that’s certain to shift the employee performance needle – without first validating what did and did not work with the previous one. Potentially makes coaching vendors wealthy – company leaders confused. After Action Reviews unfortunately, are afterthoughts for many organizations.
  2. We forgot the essence of what coaching really is. Most of the coaching models go back to the five core steps of the adult learning model:
    1. Explain the concept
    2. Explain the steps
    3. Demonstrate
    4. Practice
    5. Feedback

Simple premise – and every truly great coach in some way falls back to these pillars to introduce the training approach and/or to follow up after.

  1. We didn’t make it a priority. The number of leaders who freely admit they know coaching is important – but find they can’t find the time to do it – are legion. This is roughly akin to the man dying of thirst in the desert who says he can’t take the time to take a drink of water because he’s looking for a new canteen. But there are legitimate mitigating factors:
    1. Time/energy management is a massive problem for many in this age of technology. Leaders at every level are overwhelmed with the day to day – and desperately in need of help to prioritize where their time and attention should be directed.
    2. Coaching isn’t role modeled the higher you go in most companies. In fact, in many organizations it is an Inverse Pyramid Model – with coaching at the base the most conspicuous – and diminishing the higher you go in the company. Many CEOs/senior leaders freely admit they neither offer nor receive any level of coaching. Translation – if the assumption is coaching is meant only for the Proletariat and not for the Aristocracy – you have a caste system destined for failure.
  2. We don’t know how to coach. Now, if this seems contradictory given the number of models out there, think again. Leaders struggle to embrace a consistent approach to helping employees improve – and even the basics can sometimes confuse. The Gallup work in that regard underscores this even more. Managers/supervisors who can articulate basic job responsibilities, clear expectations, a statement of goals for the employee, and some level of feedback on how employees are doing in their job look like rock stars. If this seems fairly shocking – well, it should.
  3. We don’t know why we coach. Lost in the blur of the storm that engulfs many, some supervisors have lost sight of the value of coaching – or recognize it’s their voice that is most critical in the development and engagement of employees. The Absent Without Leave mentality is pervasive in some companies.
  4. We don’t know what to coach. An age-old maxim when it comes to performance improvement – if you can’t observe it you can’t coach it. Translation – attitudes, values, feeling, or characteristics – unless they manifest themselves as observable behaviors – are more than likely a dry well for leaders. Bosses aren’t mind readers – though some may claim they are. Try coaching others’ thoughts – tough task.
  5. Who coaches the coaches? A common complaint from many organizations – “Our first line supervisors can’t coach.” If that’s the case then those companies have another problem – their second line leaders can’t coach either – and yes, we can often follow the trail to the top of a company. The Inverse Pyramid Model is more than a cute optic – it’s real. Coaching is like a dying firework as it ascends in most organizations – but the argument could be made that it should be laser focused at the highest senior levels to illuminate the ground below.
  6. We constantly rediscover “Lost Treasure”. Many companies have reorganized and/or restructured so many times that even the greatest Best Practices are lost – and the tapestry of the company with it. One of the most common resources that can be buried – world class coaching. Many organizations assume any glance in the rear view mirror compromises forward thinking. Hogwash. George Santayana’s aphorism still applies, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
  7. We assume Extended Warranties don’t have qualifiers. I bought a luxury German car many years ago – a beauty to drive. I remember the third time I wheeled it into the dealership for service – and the conversation with the customer rep that day who explained the tires needed to be replaced and the problem with the engine likely tied back to how scrupulously I adhered to the maintenance schedule. The real message was equally clear – “Your problem is not your car – your problem is how well you’re taking care of your car…and no warranty is going to compensate for poor driver habits when you pull it off the lot.” The advice applies to companies and leaders – far too many stamp their employees with a significant amount of training (especially early on) and then “drive them off the lot” assuming warranty protection for life. The training team becomes the business equivalent of the service department – and management, the careless driver who, when the car stutters, delivers it back to the mechanics for the tune up. Translation – companies run with a mentality that the employee warranty is a lifetime arrangement – and training will always be there to account for problems that, in many cases are a leadership/driver issue. (See the Gallup findings above.) World-class training departments require world-class management follow up.
  8. We don’t recognize the difference in feedback, training, coaching, and counseling. Years ago I conducted an analysis of line leader training to better understand what distinguished what I considered world class coaches from the norm. I learned three things:
    1. The WCCs moved quickly to identify skill deficiencies – not just talk around them
    2. They defined the problem in behavioral terms
    3. They validated whether they were dealing with “can do” or “will do” issues – and adapted their game plan accordingly. Countless managers literally waste hundreds of hours each year because they can’t effectively diagnose before they take action.
  9. We don’t acknowledge that good leaders coach the skill – but great leaders coach the person. Simple concept but I saw repeatedly how truly intuitive some managers were in moving adeptly from skill coaching to human coaching. Identifying a performance gap and coaching to it improves the skill – but the goal of any enlightened leader is to cultivate a generation of opportunistic problem solvers who can assess and correct on their own. We aren’t building better supply stores when we coach – we’re building a generation of growers.
  10. We poorly selected leaders. If Gallup’s assumptions are correct, over 80% of the time we get it wrong as regards sourcing and cultivating top management talent. Translation – we insert mediocrity into the most important positions in our company and then we hope for miracles. Best in class companies heavily invest in emerging leader diagnosis and training while others use a dartboard and a prayer cloth.


The issue of Employee Engagement is a complex problem to be sure. But as with any daunting challenge it must begin with assertive first steps by transformative leaders with the vision to see “what can be.” It’s those few who will carve a new path – and cultivate acolytes who will eventually build a movement.


That time has come.


To learn more about employee engagement and the role of leaders please see the articles below or visit my website at


Why Great Leaders Can Put Out The Fire

Why Some Companies Stand














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