Coaching the Marginal Employee: Performance and Motivation

One of the most significant challenges any manager faces is dealing with employees who are not motivated or not performing as you want or need them to. Situations like these are frustrating, time-consuming, and downright difficult. That doesn’t mean they can’t be dealt with.

Consider your Own Feelings
First, consider how you would feel if you were under-performing in your own job. You would be frustrated, worried, even angry or depressed. You want to do your best on your job, but for some reason it just isn’t happening. This is how your employee feels, believe me. Once you understand that he or she actually does want to do a good job, the process becomes easier to manage. You and your employee can look at the under-performance as a problem or issue rather than a character flaw, and you can work your way through it.

Primary Reasons for Under-Performance
Unless you are dealing with someone who does not want to work at all, you are likely dealing with only two primary reasons for under-performance. The first is that the employee simply does not realize that he is responsible for a particular task or what the parameters of the task are. Secondly, it’s possible that he knows what the task is comprised of, but he actually does not know how to do some parts of the task. This leads him to ignore those parts, to declare them unimportant or obsolete, or to try to push them off to someone else. Once you accept that there are actually just these two primary reasons for genuine under-performance, it’s time to move forward.

Job Responsibilities
Start by asking your employee to write down what his or her job responsibilities are, and you do the same. This sounds pretty simplistic, but it’s a non-threatening way to start the dialog. Now you compare notes and really discuss each item. If the employee has listed a responsibility for tracking inventory, find out exactly what he or she thinks that means. Together, the two of you should define each job responsibility, agree on why it is important, determine how this task is measured, and establish any due dates for task components.

Understanding Disconnects
If you have the sense that you and the employee have a serious disconnect in any of these areas, you must delve into that disconnect. Perhaps the employee knows he is supposed to be doing a particular task, but has been afraid to tell you that he or she simply doesn’t know how to do it. Perhaps you haven’t been as clear as you thought you had been in setting performance expectations. In either event, approach this task together with your employee as a problem-solving process for which you both want a positive outcome. Your work product from these meetings should be a measurable and agreed upon set of job expectations for your employee.

Resources Needed for Success
Once you’ve agreed what the job consists of and what success looks like, you and your employee should discuss what he needs as far as support or resources to perform his job successfully. Maybe a class is in order. Maybe your employee needs to observe or shadow someone else. Maybe he needs more regular input from you as to how he is doing, at least in the short term. Whatever it is, do your best to meet any reasonable needs.

Performance and Progress Meetings
Now you are in the home stretch. You and your employee have defined the job, the deliverables, due dates, what success looks like, and you have made sure your employee has the resources and support he needs to do the job. And the two of you have agreed that all these things are in place. What now? For at least the first 6 months of this plan, you and the employee should meet at least monthly to discuss progress. If more frequent reporting seems wise, you can jointly develop a chart or other document that is turned in weekly. Such a document could list each performance area, progress that week, plans for the coming week, and any anticipated roadblocks or issues.

Then you, as the manager, have the opportunity to intervene or re-direct quickly rather than waiting for an entire month for a progress report. Think about that term, progress report. In our vernacular, this usually means a teacher or leader “rating” a student or follower as to how he is doing. Not here. Your employee is an adult with responsibility for his own job tasks. It is his responsibility, not yours, to document his performance. It’s your responsibility to correct or re-direct when needed. Not incidentally, it is also an extremely important responsibility of management to praise an employee who is working to turn his performance around.

One more thing. This approach won’t save every under-performing employee. It will save some, however. The other thing it will do is give the employee the sense that you have genuinely tried to work with him to salvage the situation. This is important both personally and professionally. When an employee knows you have done everything in your power to help him salvage his career, he is much more likely to be cooperative and constructive in his behavior. And if the two of you decide that it just isn’t working, the employee can leave your employ with his dignity intact. Finally, a well-documented and followed performance plan will be invaluable if a terminated employee should elect to pursue legal action. So get started! You have the opportunity to save a career and to build a strong working relationship with an employee you need.

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