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How to Train a Resistant Coworker

Dear Scott,

I am in the process of training a coworker. When I give her an assignment, she gives me a snarky reason why she can’t do it. I have been trying to help her with time-management. When I give reasons for what I am asking, she says I’m mothering her or attacking her. I walk away to keep things from escalating. I don’t feel like I’m attacking and I’ve worked hard on myself over the months. But it seems that no matter my approach, I get the same outcome. How can I keep our conversations on topic and not get distracted by something WAY off topic?

Beyond Frustrated

Dear Beyond Frustrated,

Training and supporting others in their professional journey can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your job. But it can also be one of the more challenging and frustrating because, to support others, you have to provide feedback, and that can be difficult. But consider this: the challenge isn’t delivering feedback, but rather helping others feel open to receive it. That only happens when people feel safe.

It appears in your case that safety may be at risk. To overcome your coworker’s resistance, you’ll need to come back to some basics and establish safety. Compare it to completing a 1000-piece puzzle. There are so many pieces and it can be difficult to identify where each goes. Where do you begin in solving your challenge? Let’s apply two key strategies great puzzlers use.

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal

What is the most important part of a puzzle? Most people say the edges. They are extremely important. So important that we will discuss them in a moment. I would argue, however, that the edges aren’t the most important. The most important part of the puzzle is the picture on the box. Have you ever tried putting together a puzzle without the picture? It can be maddening. If you’re working on a puzzle with others you may find yourself fighting for the box. It’s nearly impossible to put the puzzle together when you can’t see the finished product.

When we are training or coaching someone, it’s important to keep the finished product in mind. What are you trying to accomplish? What is your ultimate goal? The picture on the box is your intent. What do you really want for your coworker?

When people feel disrespected by us, sometimes it’s because they have misread our purpose or motive. If it’s not clear to your coworker that you value her interests and needs, she may get defensive when receiving assignments or feedback. The trick is to help her see the finished product, the big picture, your true intent.

When discussing individual pieces of the puzzle like “time-management,” it’s easy to lose sight of the picture on the box. And if your coworker can’t see your intent, she’s forced to guess—and we are all pretty poor guessers. When she accuses you of “mothering” or “attacking” her, she indicates she can’t see the picture on the box. And if she can’t see the picture, she doesn’t feel safe.

Create safety by helping her see the picture on the box. Make clear your intent by contrasting her perception with what you intend. It might sound something like this:

“Lisa, I apologize if I seem mothering or attacking. That is not my intent. I want you to be successful in this new role. I want you to be able to make your biggest and best contribution. I simply want to share what I’ve learned so you can more quickly accomplish your goals and be recognized for doing so.”

Remember, when you get resistance, stop focusing on the pieces of the puzzle (content) and start focusing on the picture on the box (intent).

Establish Mutual Purpose

Now, let’s get back to the edges. Most if not all puzzlers begin by building the borders of the puzzle. These pieces are usually easier to distinguish and it’s helpful to establish a framework and create the boundaries for your puzzle. This is equally important when training and coaching others.

Like edges to a puzzle, when you establish mutual purpose you tell the other person that you are working toward a common objective. It tells them you care. Finding mutual purpose between yourself and your coworker will help establish the boundaries by which you work as well as a sense of safety. When purpose is at risk, people become defensive, they misunderstand, arguments follow, and you keep coming back to the same topic.

You can use the CRIB skills to establish safety and mutual purpose.

Commit to seek a mutual purpose. Agree that you will come to a solution that works for everyone. “Lisa, obviously our approach isn’t working. Can we start over and see if we can come up with a solution that works for both of us?”

Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. Everyone’s intentions should be examined. We often mistake strategies for wants and intentions. Don’t make this mistake. Focus on uncovering your purposes and intentions. “Lisa, what do you want for our training relationship?”

She may come back with something like, “I just want to learn to do this job without feeling like you are hovering over me?”

It may be helpful to ask a follow-up question. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes, I thrive when I’m also recognized for the things I’m doing well and not just corrected for the things I’m doing wrong.”

Now make sure she knows your objectives.

“Lisa, I just want to make sure that we have an open communication where I can help you be successful in fulfilling your new role.”

Invent a mutual purpose. See if you can combine your purpose and hers into one mutual purpose.

“So, if we can find a way for us to create an open communication where we can discuss both your needs to improve as well as recognizing your successes without you feeling smothered, would that work?”

Brainstorm. Now that you have a found a mutual purpose, you have the safety necessary to come together and brainstorm mutually beneficial strategies. In other words, the edges are in place, you can start building your puzzle. Remember, your ideas have to meet the mutual purpose. You will be amazed at what you can come up with together.

As a possible solution, you may suggest holding “check-ins” versus “check-ups.” Allow your coworker to set regularly scheduled meetings with you to give updates on her growth and to ask any questions. This allows some ownership, but also provides an opportunity for you to praise and correct when necessary.

When all is said and done, there is great joy when you look at that 1000-piece puzzle fully completed, and you feel the satisfaction of a job well done. Remember, when you are training and coaching, keep the picture on the box readily accessible, and make sure the edges are built and you have clear boundaries on how you will work together.

Best of luck,

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3 thoughts on “How to Train a Resistant Coworker”

  1. Ruedi G

    It seems to me that both the question and the answer are missing a couple of crucial pieces – clear objectives and clear roles.
    Performance objectives: is the person not meeting them? why? according to whom? how do they relate to training?
    Training objectives: what are they? who decides (or, decided)?
    Maybe if these two issues were clarified, the person would feel more respected and become less resistant.

  2. Ken Holet

    Great ideas. They could just as easily apply to parenting!

  3. How to Train a Resistant Co-Worker? Ask Yogesh Sood

    […] This blog is an adaptation of a blog written by Scott Robley on December 16th, 2020 – […]

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