Managing People: Coach or a Selector

Satyashri Mohanty


Find the right person for the right job and everything else will fall in place, goes the belief of managers. Most are always looking for that person; they aren’t happy with who they have working for them. Given a choice, they would replace most personnel on their team with better, more suited candidates. The search never ends.
The irony, however, is that none thinks that way about his own self. Rarely does one blame one’s capabilities to explain the gaps in performance. This judgment is always reserved for others. One’s own undesirable behavior or performance is always attributed to situational factors but that of others is severely criticized.
The conflicting belief is dominant in managers who closely observe every factor impacting their own performance while being focused on the results that their team members achieve. When the team presents “other” factors as reasons for their “lackluster” performance, the managers tend to dismiss them as “excuses”.
The fact is that there is no way of conclusively proving who or which systemic reason is responsible for a particular undesirable outcome.

In many jobs, in context of an organization, there are two kinds of systemic reasons, which can impact performance, besides the individual’s capabilities or intent.

  • Uncertainties
  • Dependencies

Is the sales person continuously achieving targets because he is the champion sales man in terms of skills or is he just plain lucky to be working in a territory where the competition is weak? Did the sales man lose out on sales because the engineering department had a bottleneck and hence, could not support the sales team adequately? Did the production output go up because the production head is extremely efficient or simply because the product mix from sales was favorable?

These are difficult questions to answer. It cannot be done just by looking at the numbers. Hence, people assessment remains a gray area in most organizations. Most have a grouse against appraisal systems. Many feel that the ones getting the trophy were plain lucky or worse, they manipulated the opinions of powerful people.

Appraisal systems are a source of disharmony for many organizations and years of search for an objective system has not helped the cause. The focus on making appraisal systems objective, has forced organisations to look at easy-to-check measures, and most of what can be easily measured are end outcomes. Sales are easy to measure but how well a sales person negotiated in a particular deal, is not measurable. Quality defects are easy to measure, but diligence used in putting a quality assurance process is not. Sincerity, discipline, commitment, passion are not easy to measure but they matter a lot.

How do we judge people in this environment where outcomes are a complex interplay of dependencies, uncertainties, individual capabilities and intent?

Or should we change the question? Why do we need to judge people?

The need to judge comes from a deeper need to play the role of selector. A selector tries to judge people, segregate them into classes.

Is the search for an objective selection process futile? Can we take a different approach? Like the one we take with our kids? We do not have an option of selecting them!

Because we cannot play selector with our kids, we work continuously on improving them and ourselves in the process. This is also the approach of a coach. A good coach always believes that every student is inherently a great player. So after every performance, he evaluates details of techniques and other factors and keeps working towards improving those. End of the day, he may not be able to create a champion out of everyone but he keeps trying. He believes in the process of close observation and immediate corrective feedback rather than end-of-period measures to draw permanent conclusions about the person. Only close observation will help isolate an individual’s contribution from impact of dependencies and uncertainty. Did the player try his best to make up for lapse of his team member even though the outcome for the team was not favorable? Could the player have scored more runs if he had a stronger partner? These conclusions can be made only after close observations. For instance, a sales person may not have met the sales number for the year due to recession, but may have maintained growth by making inroads to competition’s customer base. But this conclusion can be made only by closely observing what he or she is doing on the ground. Close observation at a tactical level by a manager also allows him or her to understand obstacles and issues and provides the required help when needed.

Yes, being coach means putting in a lot of efforts. Being selector is easier. Coaching is about helping others grow – it is an endeavor that is very fulfilling. The choice is for every manager to make!

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