Why Some Employees Can't Be Coached

Sabrina Starling Commentary


Why Some Employees Can't Be Coached
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A letter from a reader:

Dr. Sabrina,

This is an Opinion

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I have an employee who performs well sometimes, but other times she is forgetful, leaves work undone, and makes mistakes. I find myself bringing work home with me because I can’t count on her to do what she is supposed to be doing.

I think she has potential because there are times when she is a great worker … if only she would be consistent so I could count on her. Would it be worthwhile to try to coach her and develop her into an A player? Is it ever possible to turn employees into A players with good training and coaching?

The short answer to this question is no, it is not possible to transform this type of employee into an A player employee — A players are motivated, resourceful, go-getters. They are the employees you count on to get things done.

A players are intrinsically motivated, meaning their motivation comes primarily from within. They enjoy the satisfaction of doing a good job, solving a problem and the process of doing work in which they find meaning. Intrinsically motivated employees will work to find a solution to a problem because the challenge of finding a solution provides a sense of pleasure.

No amount of coaching or training will instill these qualities in an employee. The only way to create A players is to raise them from a young age (I am raising two right now ).

External rewards are satisfying to intrinsically motivated individuals, but these rewards are not enough to keep them motivated for an extended time. Rather, work that interests and challenges them motivates them.

Your job as the leader is to make sure your A players are continually stretched and challenged, with ongoing opportunities for personal and leadership growth, as well as technical advancement.

What Works, What Doesn’t

This is why pay raises and bonus programs have limited effectiveness in improving employee performance and motivation.

If you have a team of A players, pay raises and bonus programs will enhance their performance and motivation to some extent. But if your team is composed of mediocre employees, pay raises and bonuses will have a minimal impact on their performance. You will likely see a brief spike in performance, followed by a return to the “same old, same old” behavior from them. Furthermore, your attempts to provide performance feedback are often met with head nodding, and very little follow-up action. In contrast, A players crave feedback and when you give it to them, you will see steady improvement with minimal setbacks.

Keep in mind that one A player can do the work of nine to 12 C or D player employees. It is a much better use of your time and energy to coach and develop your A players than it is to rack your brain trying to come up with ways to motivate mediocre employees.

A little bit of coaching goes a long way with an A player. In contrast, you can spend months trying to improve the performance of mediocre employees only to have them disappoint you, if not cost you considerably because of poor judgment or an egregious error.

It’s a better use of your energy to learn how to attract A player employees to your company, gradually replace poorer performing employees, and learn how to coach your A players.


Based in Arkansas, Sabrina Starling is the author of the “How to Hire the Best” series, founder of Tap the Potential LLC and host of the “Profit by Design” podcast. Get more resources and tips at tapthepotential.com.