Confused about Coaching a Bad Apple? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I heard somewhere that as a manager I should reward good behaviors and coach negative ones. I have been trying to do this, but I realize I’m not really sure what it means. While we are on the topic, how many times do I let someone make the same mistake before I stop the coaching and just let them go?

Confused About a Bad Apple


Dear CABA,

It is confusing—the term coaching is used in so many different ways. In your case, you are using the word to represent what I might call giving a reprimand, a redirection, or feedback about performance.

I use the term in a more positive sense: as a technique that a boss or manager might use to develop a valuable employee. Coaching takes care and time and is an investment in an employee. In a best case scenario, it is driven by the employee’s agenda. We have some interesting research and information on that here.

Honestly, though, the way you use the word is beside the point. The point here is that it sounds like your bad apple is either unwilling or unable to do the job the way it needs to be done. They need a combination of what we would call clear direction and a lot of support; in other words, crystal clear direction plus some open-ended questions to get to the bottom of what is getting in the way.

If you have an HR department, ask for help documenting each attempt at having these conversations where you give feedback and direction. If you don’t have HR, keep a record for yourself. Make sure you check your confirmation bias—a way we all have of seeking evidence to support what we already believe to be true—as best you can.

How many repeated mistakes should you tolerate? Well, that’s up to you. The thing is, everyone makes mistakes—you make mistakes, I make mistakes, and our best people make mistakes. It happens. That is just normal work. People get overwhelmed by their to-do list and are moving too fast, or maybe they are doing a small part of their job they aren’t naturally great at.

When the same mistake happens repeatedly, though, there has to be a conversation about what is going on and how can it be avoided in future. I personally feel like three solid attempts is about right, because after that it starts to feel like Groundhog Day. Almost every manager I have ever worked with has given an employee entirely too many chances and suffered the consequences. I have never once, in twenty-five years of coaching managers, seen anyone regret letting a person go who either wouldn’t or couldn’t do the job. It is nothing short of liberating.

One last thing you need to consider: none of this happening in a vacuum. Your other employees are watching how you deal with this situation and taking note of what you let others get away with. Some may have to do extra work to pick up the slack around Bad Apple. They will start to resent and judge you if you let it go on too long. I know that one from painful personal experience.

So first, be kind. Give your potential Bad Apple a little extra direction and support and one more chance—and then, if you need to, call it. I guarantee you will have no regrets.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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