Managing Poor Performers

Some of the leaders I work with remind me of tortoises when it comes to the poor performance of some of their team members: they hide from the reality of it and when they FINALLY emerge from their shells to see what’s going on (ugh), they are slow to address it. And I get it. Who wants to have those conversations? No one wants to be the one to tell an employee that they’re doing a bad job or not pulling their own weight. 

However, you don’t have a choice. As the manager, one of your main jobs is to keep your team running smoothly. And when one team member isn’t pulling their weight, or is consistently doing their work incorrectly, causing the rest of the team to pick up the slack or constantly go behind them fixing their mistakes, you’re going to have a team that’s dispirited, frustrated, and increasingly fractured. You have to stop this behavior as soon as you see it. It won’t correct itself, and it’s very likely that once an employee has begun getting away with poor performance, it will get even worse. So when you’re ready to tackle motivating lackluster employees, here’s what I want you to do.

First, step back and think about where you’re spending your time and energy. When you think of each of your employees, which ones do you end up spending the most time with? The superstar who accomplishes everything on time and according to your wishes? Or, are you rearranging your calendar often to meet up with the uninspired employee, the one who regularly struggles with timeliness, work quality, and initiative? And which one would you prefer to spend your time with? You’re far from alone if you answer that you’d rather spend time with the awesome performer. Leaders tend to gravitate towards employees who are easy to work and hang out with; these individuals are strong performers: they get things done and make bosses happy. The poor performers? You most likely avoid thinking about them or even being around them. Pull your head out of your shell, tortoise, and stop ignoring this problem and the individual.

Second, is the low level of work a case of can do or will do? Is it a skills gap or an engagement gap? This question is crucial. Review his job description and compare it with examples of the employee’s work. You’ll most likely need to sit down with him and ask him to demonstrate the skills. Best case scenario: it is a skills gap that can be resolved with training. Help your employee find a course he can take or a mentor that can help her learn the skills she’s missing. Worst case? It’s an engagement gap. In that case, there isn’t much you as a leader can do. If someone just isn’t engaged in your work, whether it’s apathy of the topic, general disinterest, or something even worse, there isn’t much you can do to engage them. In that case, it’s time to help your employee find their way to a job that’s a better fit for their interests…outside of your department. 

Now, there is a chance that the employee demonstrates to you he has mastered the role. So, what’s  going on with him? That’s a case of will do: that he is consciously choosing not to do the job at hand. Laziness is rarely the reason why people choose not to operate at a minimum level of expectations; it’s an issue of the head or heart and deciding whether he wants to do it. To motivate this individual, you need to sit down and have a heart to heart. For example, you may start off like this: “Rick, I’ve noticed your performance has been suffering for a while. Tell me what’s going on.” It’s likely just the beginning of a series of discussions you’ll have about whether he can change…and how he can do it. You’ll learn how to motivate and inspire him—if it’s possible. And then you can decide if it’s worth the  support, opportunity, and training required.

In this scenario, slow and steady– the epitome of a tortoise –will help you do a better job motivating employees at all performance levels. The best part? You still win the race.