Dealing with that problem employee is possible!

Most managers have one or two employees that are capable technically but not performing the way they wish. The challenge is how to get them up to speed. Unfortunately, most managers avoid being honest with these employees until they are so tired of the problem that it becomes bigger than it needs to be. At that point the usual pattern is to place the employee on a formal performance plan through HR that, if not met, will result in termination for the employee. I call this pattern the avoid-hammer continuum of managing employees.

You may ask, “Is that all I can do?” Of course it’s not. There is a more humane and effective way to solve a performance issue that provides growth for both the manager and the employee. Wait did you just say both? Yes, it takes two to tango and any employee that is underperforming is, in part, a reflection on your own managerial clarity and behavioral patterns.

The more humane path challenges both the boss and employee. In fact it starts with the manager acknowledging their own avoidance of the issue and taking a smaller step towards the hammer side of the continuum. Essentially it involves owning your avoidance, telling the employee the truth, and managing the issue yourself without the harsher hammer of a formal performance improvement plan. Those formal plans (that go directly into an employee’s permanent record) tend to create tremendous pressure because the message given to the employee is either improve or you’re fired. Many employees when given such plans just figure they are going to be fired. It is a rare person who, once given such a plan, can get in a learning mode and improve their performance. Additionally, most formal plans become part of an employee’s permanent record and assume innocence on the part of the boss while placing the blame for the working relationship solely on the employee. They do not help the boss become a better boss and they often lead to the employee getting fired. A lose/lose for the organization that can cost a lot of money and result in a lack of learning on the part of the manager.

In contrast, real change happens when you’re willing to look at your part in the dance. If a theory like quantum physics (which supports the interconnectedness of all parts & subparts of a system) is at all correct, then you cannot separate yourself completely from your employee’s performance. However, if you knew what to do to get results you would have already been doing it!

Your part of the dance has more to do with clarity and availability than anything else. The dilemma with clarity is that it only happens through dialogue; it does NOT happen in a monologue top down conversation which is why formal performance improvement plans rarely work. Plus most workplaces hand out their formal plans with both HR and the manager in the room essentially giving up on any neutrality and learning that can take place by the manager who is over the employee. It is a rare HR manager who can be seen as neutral for the employee. Many are seen as an arm of management.

Here are the steps to improvement if you want to go a different route that allows for both parties to get maximum learning from the scenario – (Warning – following these steps has resulted in a high degree of success. Only take them if you want improvement. Perhaps you have already decided this employee is “hopeless”. If so, the route of a formal performance improvement plan is the correct way to go.)

Get Real – Tell them the truth about their performance. The truth has to include the consequences if they do not start meeting the specific goals you have for them. This includes consequences that move in appropriate small steps so that the employee has ample chances to perform successfully. The worst case would be if you never have this conversation (perhaps thinking that adults should just know what to do!) and then end up putting them on an improvement plan out of the blue or worse, firing them.

Get Specific – Write out exactly each area (task or behavior) where they are not performing and what they need to do to improve. You must work to write this so clearly that it explains behaviors versus judgments of behaviors. For instance “be a better team player” means different things to different people. This is even better if you can tie it to situations that illustrate what you want.

Own your part – Acknowledge your part and get clarity on what you need to do to succeed. Have your employee write out what he/she needs from you in order to be successful. It must be specific behaviors that you can do to improve your performance in managing this employee, and again tied to specific times or events.

Get help – Use a third party. A trained professional is best but a trusted neutral third party from the business also works. The key is they must be neutral. If HR is seen as another arm of the management, then find a perceived neutral facilitator. Have this person help both the employee and the manager separately to get the list really specific.

Create a plan – Meet, share your specifics and learn what the employee needs from you to help them succeed. Out of that dialogue create a plan with dates for completion.

Follow through – For this to work you must follow up on a regular basis with the commitments. Have at least two formal follow-ups in two or three week intervals until you are sure the employee is on track. Start with the commitments. Give each person time to rate each action independently, and then talk about them. Remember that actions are ways to solve problems but are still just the best guess, so some adjustments in agreements may be needed. You must be diligent in the follow up or you might as well not even do the work.

Helping an employee succeed is possible but not easy. If a boss follows the above steps their employee will succeed 90% of the time. When you and your employee achieve clarity and both make commitments to change, magically, your employee’s performance will improve. But of course it’s not magic. Clarity is the start, but your commitment to follow up is the glue that holds it together. Put in the time and you will save your organization the hassle of firing, hiring, training and maintaining another new employee – cost that one financial expert estimated to me at about $60-80,000.00.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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