One of the biggest challenges managers face is dealing with performance issues when they arise. As a manager, your job is to help each one of your employees do their best work, but if someone is struggling, you might have to take more direct action. Ignoring performance issues will not only impair your team’s ability to reach its goals, it can demotivate other employees and it’s not fair to the person who is underperforming. For advice on what to do in this situation, we spoke to several experienced managers and employee relations experts at Gravity who offered the following advice for successful performance management.
What Causes Performance Issues?
Every person wants to produce great work. There is not a single employee who wants to perform poorly in their job. So why do people sometimes struggle?
Performance issues are generally related to one of two things: motivation or ability. Either the person lacks the motivation to do their job effectively or they lack the ability to perform at a high level. The two problems have different solutions.
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Regardless of the root cause, you want to approach performance issues from a perspective of understanding rather than judgment. Jena Miller, who handles Employee Relations at Gravity, says your focus shouldn’t be “You didn’t do this” but rather “What went wrong?” Seek to understand the underlying cause of the problem. Asking questions and understanding the why behind performance struggles is a much more empathetic response than immediately judging the person for doing a poor job.
Motivation problems are sometimes caused by personal issues outside of work. It’s hard to concentrate if your marriage is struggling, your mom just died, or you’re suffering from crippling depression.
Whenever possible, strive to know your employees well enough to know what’s going on in their personal lives so you can help accommodate for difficult life situations. Ask yourself questions like the following: How can I determine what is causing their work struggles? How can I support them as a person rather than just as an employee?
Of course, you also want to protect your employee’s right to privacy. If the team member doesn’t want to share personal details, don’t force them to do so. And if you get the hint that the issue could be related to a health or medical problem, advise the employee to talk to your human resources department about possible solutions.
Sometimes an employee’s lack of motivation is not connected to any significant life event. It’s possible that they’re simply struggling to overcome laziness or fear. The point is that you don’t know what is causing a performance issue until you take the time to ask questions and dive in further.
Here are a few ideas for how to overcome motivation problems:
- Connect back to their motivators. Jena advises finding out what is important to the team member, then connecting their work and performance back to their intrinsic motivators. For example, perhaps one of your team members has expressed a desire to move into a management role, yet they refuse to give direct feedback to their coworkers. You could draw the connection back to their career goals to remind them that feedback is critical to successful leadership, and in order to become a manager down the road, they will need to develop that skill.
- Clarify expectations. Check in with the team member to ensure they have a clear understanding of your expectations. It’s hard for people to be motivated when they don’t understand where they’re heading and why. Clearly articulate your expectations and talk about anticipated roadblocks that could prevent the employee from meeting expectations. It’s much easier for team members to overcome challenges when they’re expecting them and already have a game plan for defeating them.
- Identify demotivators. Ask the employee if you or others have done anything recently that has been a de-motivator for them. For example, it’s possible that you recently micromanaged the employee on a project and made them feel like they had little autonomy to make decisions. Micromanagement is often de-motivating, so it would be helpful to know if that is impacting that employee’s current performance. It’s important to note that we cannot motivate someone else. Motivation is an internal thing. However, even though we cannot motivate someone to want to do something, we can remove de-motivators that stand in their way.
Ability problems could be the result of poor training, increasing job expectations, mis-hiring, or a misalignment of skill set and job role. If the person is clearly motivated to work hard and stay engaged but they’re still struggling to meet expectations, you are likely dealing with an ability problem.
Similar to dealing with motivation problems, the first thing to do is to ask questions and collect more information rather than jumping to conclusions. Ask the employee questions like the following: Do you feel like you received sufficient training to perform this work? What can I do to help? What aspect of this project is most difficult for you?
David Whetten and Kim Cameron, authors of Developing Management Skills, suggest a few ideas for how to overcome ability problems:
- Resupply: Ensure the team member has the resources and support they need to do their job effectively.
- Retrain: It’s possible the employee needs more training and that a lack of training when they first began their role is the reason for the ability issues.
- Refit: Consider rearranging the employee’s job tasks around their unique strengths. You could reassign some of the person’s work to another team member (either for the short-term or long-term) and move more tasks onto the person’s plate that align with their skills. Maybe you have a customer service rep who is great at execution and project management, but they get anxious speaking with clients on the phone. You could consider having that employee manage the case queue of incoming client requests and work as back-end support to resolve those requests. This would allow the employee to spend less time answering phones and more time coordinating and executing the tasks requested by clients.
- Reassign: The employee may be a great fit for the company but not a great fit for their current role. If you think that’s the case, start talking to other team leaders to see if it would make sense to transfer the person into a different team.
- Release: Sometimes the best solution is to let the person go. This should be your last resort, but it’s occasionally the best option for everyone involved. Organizations need to create an environment where everyone performs at a high level, and employees want to work somewhere where they feel successful. If that’s the case, partner with your HR team to determine an offboarding plan for the employee.
Holding Team Members Accountable
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to provide immediate, candid feedback and hold your team accountable for producing great work. If someone continues to struggle to meet expectations, you need to talk to them and share what you’ve observed.
Gravity COO/CTO Tammi Kroll says, “I used to think holding people accountable would impact their confidence, but in reality, it’s often the opposite. Most people want to be held accountable. They want to know what your expectations are and they want to work for someone who has very high expectations.”
Create a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)
If an employee continues to struggle after you’ve given them repeated opportunities to improve, you should work with them to create a plan for improvement. A performance improvement plan (PIP) is an agreed-upon plan that contains next steps and SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) goals for what the employee should complete and by when.
When writing a PIP, explicitly state the performance gap you’ve observed and explain what must be done to fix it. As much as possible, it’s important for the employee to own the plan so they can be in charge of their own growth and development.
A PIP is distinguished from a standard performance conversation in a few key ways:
- It is a formal document that you’ll send to the employee.
- It explicitly conveys the seriousness of the performance issues.
- It contains defined steps for improvement in written format.
If one of your team members continues to struggle despite repeated conversations with them about their performance, talk to your employee relations team to see if a PIP or similar plan is the best option.
Performance Management Tips
In addition to all of the above advice, there are several things you can do to make performance conversations more effective:
- Don’t wait until there is a problem. You should have ongoing performance discussions with your team. Don’t let something develop into a big problem before you bring it up. Talk about any concerns as you have them.
- Dig deep to understand the why. Every performance issue happens for a reason. You want to understand that reason in order to deal with it appropriately.
- Be candid, kind, and assertive. As with any kind of feedback, it’s important to balance candor and kindness when sharing tough messages. Don’t sugarcoat the message. If an employee is struggling, tell them. Share what you’ve observed.
- Care for your team members as people. Find ways to support the “whole person” by learning more about each person’s life, family, hobbies, and passions. Caring for someone does not mean you would never fire them. It means that you will first do everything possible to help them succeed.
- Learn each employee’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to have weaknesses. Everyone has them. The important thing is to understand them so you can develop those weaknesses and/or work around them. Knowing someone’s strengths and weaknesses will also help you move them into the best role for their abilities.
- Delegate work to develop and determine ability. “Sometimes you delegate to a weakness; sometimes you delegate to a strength,” Jena says. “If you’re not delegating, you’re not giving yourself an opportunity to assess performance. You need to give yourself the opportunity to determine how someone is doing.”
- Don’t tolerate mediocrity. If someone is underperforming and you allow them to continue underperforming, everyone suffers. High performers on your team will become frustrated and may even decide to leave the company. Average performers may think they can slack off because you seem to allow that behavior. By holding everyone to a high standard, you ensure you’re getting the best possible results from your team.
- Trust, but verify. If someone is struggling with a task, check their work occasionally to verify that it’s being completed to the standard you expect.
- Eliminate subjectivity. If you conduct quarterly or annual formal performance reviews with your team, create a rubric with defined criteria for each score. If you include a 1-5 performance scoring system or something similar, define exactly what constitutes a “4” as opposed to a “5.” If possible, provide some type of tangible example for each score. The more clear you can be, the more you will eliminate the subjectivity and implicit bias that negatively affect performance reviews.
- Give people a chance to improve. Unless an employee committed an egregious offense that warrants immediate termination, work with them to create a performance improvement plan to help them become more productive and successful.
Effective performance management is not a one-time thing. It is an ongoing process of setting clear expectations, then holding people to those expectations. Performance management requires empathy, understanding, direct communication, and follow-through. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. By using the tips above, you can create an environment of strong performance and high engagement.
By Bobby Powers, Head of Learning and Development
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