Bite-sized people management: Counselling for success

“Bite-Sized People Management” refers to brief, half- to one-hour discussions with busy managers reminding them of, or introducing, the basics of people management.

The following brief introduction to counselling is broken into two articles. The second will follow next week. This first article covers the rationale behind and preparation for counselling, while the second discusses the steps in the counselling process.

CounsellingIn his book Business Stripped Bare Richard Branson says, “Find good people and set them free.” A lot of us have bad people we’d like to set free, and most of the time we would settle for employees who will just do as they are told.

But is that good enough? What if we are away? What if they encounter something out of the ordinary? What about those employees who could make a real difference to our organisations if only they knew how? To quote Melissa Raffoni, founder of CEO Consulting, “A manager’s job is, quite simply, to motivate people toward achieving a common goal.” Our job as managers and leaders is not simply to manage work but to encourage people to do the work that will achieve company goals. There are employees who want to make a difference; we need to learn how to let them.

Counselling is one of the most important tools to get people performing at their best. The word is often used to cover a range of activities: from informal to formal, from a once-off discussion to long-term mentoring, from corrective counselling when things go wrong, to encouragement and affirmation when targets are exceeded.

This discussion is concerned with corrective counselling: fixing the things that go wrong in behaviour and performance. These are the difficult conversations; if we get them right, the others will become lot easier.

There are, of course, some employees who won’t listen to counselling. “They only listen to a big stick,” we are told. The reality is that they don’t even listen to a stick. They are only interested in their pay cheque, and cooperation and targets are of no interest to them. They need to be eased out of the organisation. But if they are not actually misbehaving, counselling is the only way to do it. The same is true of those who cannot do the job for a variety of reasons. For all incapacity issues, medical or otherwise, South African labour law requires the organisation to try to accommodate where possible. Counselling is the process. It is also the process for helping those employees who want to do better but don’t know how or where to focus their activities.

Setting the standards
Counselling starts way back with the setting of standards of behaviour and performance. Labour law expects you to have those rules and standards in place and to hold your employees accountable—as long as they are reasonable in the context of your business and your employees know what they are.

If the aim of counselling is to improve performance and behaviour, the alternative, where an employee cannot or will not improve, is dismissal. If you have a good reason to terminate and you follow due process, the courts will support your action.

In a case of dismissal for poor performance, the Labour Relations Act, Code of Good Practice: Dismissal asks certain questions, which can be summarised as:

Was there a standard or rule in place?
Was the employee aware of the standard or rule?
Was the employee given a fair opportunity to meet the required standard?

What are your standards of performance and behaviour?  Do your employees know what they are?  And don’t just focus on the boring bits like production, sales and record-keeping targets.  What are you passionate about? Why are you in business? What’s the most important thing you want your employees to get about your business and your customers? Keep talking about these things, and the detailed stuff will begin to make sense.

The investigation
When something goes wrong and standards are not met, the first and most critical step is an investigation. The more thorough the investigation, the easier the rest becomes.

The investigation reveals the standards of performance or behaviour that have been missed and to what extent.  It also helps one decide whether the problem involves misconduct or poor performance, and whether to discipline or to counsel. Different procedures are prescribed for different people-management problems. It is essential to know what you are dealing with—hence the investigation. But get help if you are not sure.

Next: The Process of Counselling

Any comments that will help our learning process would be welcomed. If you would like me to present this or other people management training (from half-an-hour to full-day workshops) to your managers or staff, please contact me.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.


  1. […] more on counselling see ‘Counselling for success‘ and ‘The process of counselling‘. For help or for various training options for […]

  2. […] busy managers reminding them of, or introducing, the basics of people management.The first article [see here] looked at the rationale behind and preparation for counselling. This article discusses the steps […]

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