4 steps to curing performance headaches

Management has its ups and downs. When everything goes well, it’s a great job. Your team is happy. Your boss is happy. That usually means you are happy.  

But it’s not always like that. It’s when things don’t go well that we earn our money as managers.

The down times for most managers are often tied to an underperforming employee. Poor individual performance can quickly become a drag on the team’s performance, morale, and your time if it’s not handled quickly and effectively.

The headache of a poor-performing employee isn’t too different from a real headache. Allergies, hangovers, neck problems, and influenza can all cause headaches. But if you treat them all with allergy medicine, you’re unlikely to cure most of your pain.

To effectively address performance issues requires that you first clearly diagnose the underlying cause. There are four potential root causes of an employee’s poor performance, and each needs to be addressed differently.

Cause #1: I am unclear about expectations.

In one of my first management jobs, I would occasionally organize a “lunch and learn.” This was development for my team and it was important to me. Everyone on my team would attend these except for one employee. This drove me crazy.

After it happened a couple of times, I asked this employee why she wasn’t attending. Her response? “You said it was optional.” And, she was right. I had told the team that attendance wasn’t required. But honestly, I never fathomed that one of my team members would pass up the opportunity. After realizing the disconnect, I communicated a new expectation and made them a requirement.

When an employee isn’t meeting your expectations, check the clarity of your communication about what’s expected. It’s hard to meet, let alone exceed, an expectation you are unaware of or unclear about.

Talk with the employee and ask what they understand to be the expectations. If they aren’t sure, this is easy to fix. To ensure clarity, write them down. If you aren’t a manager who makes time to document expectations with your team, it’s time to start.

Cause #2: I don’t know how.

Once you validate that an employee is clear on what’s expected, ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to perform. Some people just won’t ask for help when they need it. Maybe it’s because they are afraid of looking dumb or scared of losing their job. These often irrational fears can cause an employee to fake it and hope for the best. Not a great strategy.

To diagnose the situation, start with a conversation. Ask how comfortable and confident they are with their core tasks. If you emphasize that it’s okay if they need more training or support, they might feel more comfortable asking for it.

But they also may not realize they have a gap.

If you don’t have clear visibility into their work process or project, it’s time to dig in. Ask them to walk you through how they do things and to share some samples of recent work.

Once you’ve identified the gaps, create a development plan with specific actions and timelines.

Cause #3: I am not able.  

Sometimes, you hire people who just aren’t up to the task. I’ve seen people leave for lunch on their first day and never come back because they felt they were in over their head. You likely won’t be that lucky.

If you’ve assured clarity of expectations, provided all of the necessary skills and knowledge, and the employee is investing the required effort, your performance problem is likely an ability problem. Even the most talented among us would fail if put in a job that is a mismatch for our talents and abilities.

In this case, support the individual in finding another role where they can be successful (whether it’s at your organization or someplace else). Letting the person stay in their current role isn’t fair to the individual or your team.

Cause #4: I don’t want to (or don’t care).  

A few years ago, we hired an individual on my team who had a lot of potential. He was smart, resourceful, and expressed a strong interest in the job he accepted. Quickly, he became a management headache. From the beginning, his performance was shaky. We clarified expectations, trained him up, and provided as much encouragement and feedback as we could muster. But ultimately, he just wasn’t interested in the work. So, we decided to free him up for alternative job opportunities. We let him go.

Sometimes, despite doing all the right things, you end up in a circumstance like this. The best thing to do is swiftly and respectfully cut your losses and move on. Chances are, they are just waiting for you to work up the courage to do it. So, don’t keep them waiting too long.

Managing your way through performance issues doesn’t have to be daunting. If you spend the time to correctly diagnose the cause, you’ll be well on your way to curing the headache.

About Jason

jasonheadshot-2Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author, and advisor.  He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. 

A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. 

Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. 

Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at www.JasonLauritsen.com

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