IN MY WORK as an executive coach, I find one of the most anxious needs is an answer to the question: “What do I do with an employee whose work has dropped off?”
It is interesting to note how so many managers excel at coming up with strategies, putting out fires, closing sales, etc. If a business competitor aggressively cuts its prices, astute leaders quickly respond with an enhancement to their own product or service in an attempt to win the marketplace battle. A “let’s get it done” atmosphere prevails.
Yet, there is often a heightened level of concern when it comes to an anticipated poor reaction by subordinates who are confronted about their work performance. It seems as if the “let’s get it fixed” response for other business matters is withheld when human conflict is anticipated. I am not referring to a physical threat (though that is not out of the question anymore, I regret to add), but merely a polite, professional, stick-to-the-facts (with no characterological insults or insinuations), non-aggressive discussion calling for results.
When it comes to addressing a problem having to do with poor performance by an employee, many managers become “all thumbs,” often proceeding to either ignore or rationalize the decline (e.g., “He’s just going through a slump. He’s basically a good employee”). Of course, this may be an accurate assessment, but it would still, likely, require an intervention to correct the behavior.
Or a manager’s reaction might go the other way, asking HR how to “get rid of him,” with hardly a thought given to the costs of turnover (e.g., training, recruitment, etc.), let alone the unfairness involved when one does not communicate deficiencies to an employee to allow for an opportunity to turn things around.
Often the lack of action is the result of psychological fusion, a term I coined years ago. In this case, it might exhibit itself as a fear of confronting the aberrant worker rooted in a worry that he will threaten to quit or do an end-run to the boss — or something even more aggressive.
This kind of “What if…?” worrying can lead to no response to a bad situation — paralysis by analysis some call it. So, the first response by a manager to poor performance ought to be an objective evaluation of the situation. Is there deficient work? Is it significant? A first step might then be to address the matter directly such as by communicating expectations to the individual involved.
Then, look for improvement. If there is some, reinforce it with affirming words, e.g., “Nice job, Pete. Thanks for taking care of the matter.” If there is no improvement, the conversation becomes “I need you to take care of this. Your work matters and adds to, or detracts from, the reputation we have with our customers for quality.” If there is still no improvement, explain the potential consequences, e.g., this could affect his annual performance review and compensation, promotability, even job retention. The goal is compliance, not expecting individuals to perform beyond their abilities and knowledge level.
Be careful not to get entwined into the matter with words, such as, “Is there something we can do to help?” Remember, this is his problem, not yours. He needs to take care of the matter (e.g., getting to work on time, showing up at meetings, contributing to work discussions at staff meetings, returning customers’ inquiries and requests on a timely basis, etc.) However, if the individual admits to needing more training or having underlying issues, a referral to HR might be in order.
It is a good practice to document such meetings by keeping notes. This helps managers recall the series of discussions and also may be useful if more serious action becomes necessary. Of course, a manager should be just as ready to record positive events, such as rising to the occasion by working on a particular weekend or meeting other extraordinary needs. The problem is that many managers are reluctant to record positive occurrences out of fear it will be used against them if the termination of someone’s services is called for at a later date. However, if managers do not make note of extraordinary contributions, come time for compensation and performance reviews, those instances may not be taken into account, leading to a rightfully disgruntled, amotivated worker.
A motivated workforce is an enduring competitive advantage. It calls for accountability by all.