Dos and Don’ts for Dealing with a Disillusioned Direct Report

Disillusioned LearnerPeople cycle through four predictable stages when presented with a new task or goal at work. If it’s something they’ve never done before, they’ll usually start out as an enthusiastic beginner—full of confidence but short on experience. This is followed by a dip in commitment and competence as the challenge of learning something new settles in. In Situational Leadership® II, we describe this stage as a disillusioned learner. With the appropriate mix of direction and support, people move through this phase to become capable but cautious performers and finally self-reliant achievers.

However, the right amount of direction and support is not as obvious to managers as you might think. Here are some dos and don’ts for dealing with a disillusioned direct report.

DON’T say “You shouldn’t feel that way.” This is a piece of unsolicited advice that devalues the person who has just admitted to fear, uncertainty, or a host of other emotions that shouldn’t be ignored.

DO acknowledge the learner’s feelings. Say “Thank you for sharing that. I’m confident I can support you.”

DON’T confuse a disillusioned development stage with incompetence or lack of caring. Everyone hits discouragement when performing a task they have never done before. Some go through this phase in the blink of an eye. Others have the potential to remain in this stage indefinitely. Observe carefully and act accordingly.

DO ask open ended questions. Sentences that begin with the words what, when, and how are a good start.

DON’T lead the witness. Keep solutions that seem obvious to you out of the discussion at first. Trust the person you are coaching to come up with reasonable, creative, and resourceful ways to address their concerns.

DO be prepared to use your reverse gear. Linda Miller, master certified coach and coauthor of the book Coaching in Organizations, recommends acknowledging when you say something in error—even if it is said with the best of intentions. Don’t be afraid to back up and start again.

DON’T belittle, ignore, or avoid conversations with learners who are smack in the middle of disillusionment on a task or goal. They need your direction and support to help them move forward.

DO revisit the goal whenever necessary. Clear agreements and a detailed description of the target help learners visualize a positive outcome. Show them what a good job looks like. Use examples and templates and be ready to identify additional resources to keep people on the right track.

Do you know somebody who could use a little help with a task or goal they might be struggling with?  As a leader, here are three questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • What is my role in helping this person move from disillusioned to confident and competent?
  • How do I know if I’m giving them the right amounts of direction and support?
  • What else does this learner need from me right now?

Navigating through a disillusioned learner stage is difficult but natural. How you respond as the leader of a disillusioned learner will have a direct impact on what happens next.  Identify your role, take your time to decide on appropriate direction and support, and follow up to help your people grow.

About the Author

Patricia OverlandPatricia Overland is a Coaching Solutions Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 130 coaches have worked with over 14,500 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services. And check out Coaching Tuesday every week at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.

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