Dealing with underperformers is one of the more challenging aspects of being a manager. Approaching an employee to discuss their shortfalls and coming up with a plan of action is often something we dread and even the most well-intentioned manager may avoid doing this part of their job. But letting underperformers coast not only affects productivity, it’s demoralizing for the rest of the organization.
Here are a few ideas for approaching the situation:
Understand Which Factors are Under Your Control
The first place to start is with yourself. Look at the factors that are under your control:
Does your employee know what they are supposed to be doing?
This may sound like a silly question, but lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities can create a discrepancy in performance expectations. Make sure expectations and metrics have been clearly defined and communicated.
Do they get feedback on their work?
Your employees should know how they're doing. If there are issues to be addressed with their performance, you need to be communicating with them. Their inability to read your mind does not count as a performance issue.
Are they protected enough or is their time always interrupted?
Especially for work that requires unbroken stretches of effort, frequent interruptions can be an issue. Make sure you're aware of requests on your employee's time and help shield them from interruptions.
How is morale?
Poor relationships, constantly changing priorities and lack of confidence in the company are all morale killers which can greatly affect performance. Providing a stable infrastructure, keeping communication open and recognizing contributors for their good work are all good places to start to boost morale.
Do they have the tools and resources they need?
Making do with insufficient resources (people, software, budget) and working without adequate tools uses up time and energy. Make sure your team has what it needs to operate efficiently.
Is there any other support you should be providing them with?
This could be anything from checking in on a regular basis (the more junior, the more frequent the check-in) to providing training or assigning them a mentor on the team.
Understand Which Factors are Under the Employee's Control
Now that you're familiar with the issues that you can influence, here are some aspects of the employee's performance to examine:
What is the depth of their expertise? What is the level and quality of their execution? Do they take pride in their work? Are they accurate and respectful of deadlines? Be objective about their skill level and think about whether they are meeting their potential.
Their emotional disposition
Do they take initiative and approach their work with a good attitude? How do they handle stress? Will they let you know when things are going off-track or hide when things aren’t going well? What motivates or deflates them? Understanding how your employee operates provides a valuable context for their performance.
Their professional goals
What do they want out of this job? Their career? Making sure your employee’s ambitions are aligned with your organization’s needs is key in ensuring productivity.
At this point, you essentially have three options:
1. Manage Towards Improvement
If you feel like the employee can improve with support from you and concerted effort on their part, work together to create a performance improvement plan.
Be specific about what you would like to see improved, what will be provided to support the plan (tools, training, mentorship), and what the measurement and timeframe for success are.
If you feel like the employee has some real qualities but is in the wrong role, think about where they could make a better contribution in the organization. This could mean something as simple as a lateral move within the group, or something more considerable like creating a new role just for that employee.
Work closely with the employee to make sure the new responsibilities are in alignment with their goals, and that any change in group, manager or compensation is clearly communicated.
3. Let Them Go
If you don't believe the employee has the ability to work effectively within the organization, even with your full support, it may be time to terminate their employment. This decision should not be taken lightly--clear communication about the performance problem and an attempt at improvement should always come first. But once the decision is clear, moving quickly to let the employee go is the best course of action.
Always make sure your team members know their role and where they stand. Make sure to take care of the factors under your control, support your people and work with employees who may need a boost. If a team member needs to be reassigned or let go, take care of it before productivity and morale take a dive.
Have you managed to get an underperformer back on track?
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