One of my favorite things about what I do is having the opportunity to lead and manage others. I get to build teams, develop individuals, connect with people one-on-one, and coach them through key moments in their careers.
But with the good comes the bad—and as a manager, it’s up to me to seek out and address poor work performance when it happens.
What I’ve found is that what manifests as poor employee performance doesn’t always come from incompetency or the inability of individuals to get their job done. Sometimes there are underlying challenges keeping an employee from a high performance that has nothing to do with their role competency.
As a manager, it’s your job to do the digging and address the issue head-on.
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Why tackle poor performance?
Poor work performance tends to be low on an employer’s agenda. But poor performance:
- Reduces productivity
- Reduces morale
- Negatively impacts employee motivation and retention
But why do managers find poor performance uncomfortable? Let’s address the elephant in the room head-on.
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Is it Really Poor Work Performance — Or Something Else?
In my experience, here are a few common underlying issues that result in poor performance:
Gallup reports that a whopping 70% of the US workforce is disengaged in their jobs. So, there’s a good chance that your underperforming employee could be one of them.
According to that same Gallup poll, employee engagement isn’t binary. There are three classifications of engagement:
- Not engaged
- Actively disengaged
Engaged employees are excited about their work and easy to spot, actively disengaged employees are also easy to spot as they may be melancholic and dissident. But the unfortunate silent majority are the not engaged employees. They makeup over 50% of the American workforce and easily blend in among their engaged and disengaged counterparts.
The behaviors of disengaged employees can be obvious–they may be absent, come to work disheveled with a bad attitude, and lack of enthusiasm, but few employees start this way. What are the early signs? There are multiple ways to spot burnout and address the problem before it escalates.
Really get to the root of the problem. Why is your employee disengaging? Is your employee underperforming because they’re bad at their job or they aren’t set up for success? Or is it because they aren’t invested in the work or the culture? Does your employee feel safe to express themselves? Or are they chastised anytime they bring up constructive criticism or voice their opinion? Spot burnout early on and prevent an employee from leaving you in the dust.
Forty-seven percent of all employees report that the stress of a personal problem impacts their poor work performance. If you’re having trouble with an underperforming employee, check-in with them. Is there anything going on at home? Anything you can do from a work perspective to help them succeed despite internal struggles? Do you provide time-off? Encourage them to take personal days.
Regardless of what it is, the key is to get to the root of the problem first before jumping to conclusions. You can identify these symptoms early and often simply by keeping in close communication with your team members.
Lack of feedback
Employees want to know where they stand. Employees who don’t receive regular feedback for their accomplishments at work aren’t motivated to achieve their goals.
One in five employees isn’t confident their manager will provide timely, constructive feedback.
Employees don’t want to wait for bi-annual performance reviews. They want regular one-on-one check-ins. We recommend weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings are best. Ask good questions and be fully present when you’re in these meetings with your employees. They want to feel seen and heard; their work appreciated, and their ideas welcomed.
Stand-ups are also a great opportunity to touch base with your employees and what projects they’re working on. Jell makes it easy to communicate with your team with automatic standups. Easily integrated with Slack, Jell sends all of your employees reminders to check in with their progress on their weekly assignments. We also recommend having meetings on Google Meet, Zoom, or any other video-conferencing application. This way you can see one another’s faces in real-time and check in with each other.
This goes along with our next point…
Poor recognition protocols
Daily Slack standups or standups through video conferencing give managers the perfect opportunity to recognize employees for their work each week.
Who doesn’t want to be recognized for their output at work?
Send a little Slack message to say, “I saw what you accomplished yesterday on that project, great job! Keep up the good work!” or remind them of their hard work at the next one-on-one meeting.
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This one might sting. Have you thought that maybe the problem is *gulp* you and your managerial style? It’s an unfortunately common cause of employee disengagement. Take a self-audit of your managerial style: Are you a good manager? If so, why? Do you favor certain employees? Do you clearly set expectations for each of your employees? Do you give regular, constructive feedback? (That means something deeper than just, “good job!” or “do better!”). Do your employees feel valued?
We’ve only addressed a few reasons for disengaged employees, but the point is to communicate with your employees sooner rather than later.
Now let’s review how to nip this problem in the bud.
How to Improve Poor Work Performance
If you’ve done your investigation and know that poor employee performance is truly the issue, it’s time to attack it head-on. Instead of overreacting, simple tactics can help you effectively and professionally turn employee performance around:
Confront the Employee
I’ve known people who will avoid confrontation at all costs for fear of hurting an employee’s feelings or making things awkward on the team. But when it’s well-executed and puts the employee and team’s best interest at heart, it can be relatively painless. The key is communication—no one can improve or correct their actions unless they’ve been made aware that there’s an issue, to begin with. Whereas subtle hints in passing or changes in body language aren’t going to do the trick, setting up a formal confrontation with your employee will give them a “wake up call” that something needs to change.
In my experience, it’s best to do this as early and often as possible. At Jell, we put this in practice with a New Employee Success Plan, which is given to all new hires to identify what success looks like at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks. Doing this helps us avoid poor work performance because we:
- Set expectations early
- Clearly document your performance plan
- Force the manager/employee to have regular conversations about measuring performance so everyone’s on the same page
A word of advice? Plan your confrontation discussion before you go in blind and speak too vaguely, aggressively, or broadly.
Set and Keep Goals
It’s said that people who set goals are 10x more likely to achieve them. Regardless of whether that’s true, the simple act of naming them makes them real. If employees aren’t meeting your expectations, could it be that you haven’t adequately defined them?
- Think smaller. Perhaps your company already sets goals. That’s not enough. Employees need to be able to relate to the team and individual levels to buy-in. Set goals for each employee and your team that relate back to the overarching goals at the executive level so individuals can feel like they have a stake in the company and are regularly hitting milestones.
- Make goals visible. When goals are shared once at the quarterly meeting and not again for the next three months, achieving them is unrealistic. Keep goals top-of-mind by posting them around the office and on your internal tools/channels to give employees a reminder and make them readily accessible.
- Check-in. If you’re not already using your team meetings to check in on goal progress, you should be. Conducting daily stand-ups keeps your team well-connected, on track, and accountable for the goals you set at the beginning of the quarter.
Regularly Track Progress
It’s unfair (and unproductive) to only raise issues to an employee when they’re on their way out the door. Continual communication in the form of regular one-on-ones allows you to gather feedback, check-in on issues as they arise, and connect with your team members in real-time. Unachieved goals at the end of a quarter should never be a surprise (or a reality) if you’re regularly checking in with your employee and helping them correct roadblocks as they arise.
In addition, conducting quarterly performance reviews gives you an outlet to address poor work performance and opportunities for improvement that aren’t urgent enough to discuss on a weekly basis. This is where you can address things like:
- Professionalism and tact
- Business acumen
- Opportunities for professional development/training
- Time management
Don’t forget to highlight areas of exceptional work as well so the employee knows what to continue doing.
Incentivize and Give Recognition
According to OfficeVibe, managers who recognize employee performance can increase engagement by almost 60%. I must assume that most poor performers genuinely want to improve and be successful. But if they don’t have a clear model for what great performance looks like, they won’t know how to replicate it. Plus, rewarding great performance not only motivates poor performers to continually succeed but also incentivizes top performers to keep winning.
Recognizing employees doesn’t have to be extravagant. In fact, 82% of employees think it’s better to give someone praise than a gift. Try these small, but appreciated tactics:
- Privately praise good work in one-on-ones
- Recognize high performance at daily stand-ups
- Give credit to each project participant when showcasing departmental work in front of the company
Know When to Part Ways
If you’ve tried everything and given the underperforming employee ample chances to improve, there’s only one other thing you can do. And that’s ok.
In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins describes what it’s like getting the right people in the right seats of your metaphorical “bus.” If not, it may require some rearranging—or having the wrong people get off.
While you can do everything to try and motivate an underperformer, at some point, individual shortcomings will impact the team and company. Termination is never easy, but as a manager, it’s your duty to ensure you have the best team in place to meet your goals and succeed.
Addressing poor work performance on your team comes with the job of being a manager. By getting to the root of the issue and prioritizing regular communication, you can save yourself, the employee, and your team a lot of misery in the long run.