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How to Motivate an Underperforming Employee

Experts weigh in on the right way to coach a subpar worker and when it's time to cut your losses.
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It's your job to motivate the troops, but what about the stragglers? Many leaders believe we're all adults, so if some employees aren't keeping up, ultimately you must fire them.

Before the problem gets to that point though, are you putting in the right effort to get your weaker employees up to par? Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, interviewed experts on how to correctly motivate those underperformers. Check out her suggestions below.

Address the problem head-on

If an employee is faring poorly, don't wait to talk to him or her. Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and co-author of The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, tells HBR that performance issues are too often ignored by management. "Most performance problems aren't dealt with directly," he says. "More often, instead of taking action, the manager will transfer the person somewhere else or let him stay put without doing anything."

Weintraub says that underperformance is like an infection. You have to treat it and help it heal, or else it will spread. Jean-François Manzoni, a professor of management at INSEAD and co-author of The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail, tells HBR that ignoring the problem is poor management: "Never allow underperformance to fester on your team. It's rare that these situations resolve themselves. It'll just get worse. You'll become more and more irritated and that's going to show and make the person uncomfortable."

Find the root cause

If your employee is a bad fit for the job, that's on you. If he lacks the necessary skills, that's on you too. These causes for underperformance can be fixed with training. There also might be a misunderstanding of your expectations. You need to look at how you and the employee are jointly responsible. "You may have contributed to the negative situation," Manzoni says. "After all, it's rare that it's all the subordinate's fault just as it's rare that it's all the boss's." You both need to make changes, so figure out what's causing the issue.

Make sure you are objective

It's important to make sure you are not approaching the matter with a bias. If the employee's mistakes are angering you, tap your managers to contribute to a review of the person's work. Manzoni tells HBR that you might ask your managers in confidence: "I'm worried that my frustration may be clouding my judgment. All I can see are the mistakes he's making. I want to make an honest effort to see what I'm missing." Try to find facts that will prove there's either a communication problem, systemic issue, or a need for proper training.

Start a conversation

Now that you have collected unbiased information, it's time to talk with the underperformer. Tell him or her what you have observed, how their actions are affecting the team and company, and stress that you're available to help. Manzoni says you should tell the employee that you realize there are performance issues, that you know he or she can do better, and ask for ideas on how the issue can improve. Weintraub says not to put them on the spot--brainstorm with them and give them a few days to think on it and come up with a plan.

Coach the employee and lay out the plan

If the employee is not interested in being coached, then there's nothing you can do to change their performance and it's decision time. "If someone says, 'I am who I am' or implies that they're not going to change, then you've got to make a decision whether you can live with the issue and at what cost," Weintraub says. But if they are willing to learn and change, it's time for a plan. This is the time to get the specific improvements and goals down on paper and detail how to achieve them. Agree on measurable actions and start tracking their progress. Don't let the employee overextend herself. Be realistic with the goals and make sure you give ample time. "Everyone needs time to change and maybe learn or acquire new skills," Weintraub says.

Follow up and monitor progress

You need to follow up with the employee. All your work will be for nothing unless you monitor their progress. Ask them if they have a superior they trust who can help track their work and report to you confidentially. "It says I want this to work and I want you to feel comfortable; I'm not going to sneak around your back," Weintraub says.

Take action if needed

After all this work, if there are no improvements, it's time to change your demeanor. If the employee starts to take advantage of your kindness, mentoring, and coaching, you can't stand for it. "At some point you leave coaching and get into the consequences speech. You might say, 'Let me be very clear that this is the third time this has happened and since your behavior hasn't changed, I need to explain the consequences,'" Weintraub says. Don't let your ego into this, however. Take any disciplinary action seriously. "When you fire somebody, it not only affects that person, but also you, the firm, and everybody around you," Manzoni says.

Reward them for changes

If the employee turns their performance around, you should reward them. Don't leave them feeling like the ax is ready to drop on their neck. "At some point, if the non-performer has improved, be sure to take them off the death spiral," Weintraub says. "You want a team that can make mistakes and learn from them."

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Last updated: Jun 25, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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