Dealing with underperforming employees – is it even possible?
People are strange, as Jim Morrison once said. During your career you’ve probably experienced this on your own, but there is a type of strange that is particularly difficult to manage – the slackers. They are arguably one of the most frustrating employees to deal with, since they don’t feel motivated and can often be seen doing off-target tasks. Often they can be very smart and creative when they want to, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to utilize their potential.
When it comes to productivity of groups, it is known that a team is as productive as its least productive member. In management theory it’s called „bottleneck“. The inefficiencies brought about by the bottleneck often create a queue and a longer overall cycle time. Applied to a whole organization – it means that your business is as fast as your slowest employee is.
Mary Hladio, founder and president of Ember Carriers Leadership Group and an organizational performance consultant, says, “Regardless of the symptom or reason, in all cases these type of occurrences have to be handled immediately and professionally. Avoiding or delaying dealing with problems may encourage other employees in the company to follow suit or a decrease in morale”.
If you find yourself in an unpleasant situation of dealing with an underperforming employee, these are several ways to solve it effectively:
- Realize the reasons behind their behavior.
It is important to keep in mind that not every underperforming employee is a slacker. Perhaps a person is just lacking motivation or is faced with a task that’s possibly too complicated at the moment. In this case, breaking tasks down to more achievable goals could bring improvement. Make sure to provide a clear structure and define explicit expectations for your worker, so you can measure the performance over time.
- Set up a reward system and make the individual input visible.
Many times we procrastinate simply because we don’t like the activity. A solution to this would be to compensate the uninspiring activity with an adequate reward. When you have an underperforming employee, it’s better to appraise individuals who contributed significantly, than to award the whole team. Being marked as an underperformer publicly for a smart person usually is a wake up call.
- Make clear that it’s not about being busy, but about the results.
Many slackers always seem to be busy, when in fact they are not contributing to the results nearly as much as others. If this is the case with your troubled employee, your conversation with him or her should not start with “Tell me what you’re doing at the moment”, but with “Tell me what you have completed last month”. Show him or her how others performed compared to them and make a point about how underperforming harms not only the organization as whole, but also their colleagues and themselves.
- Shrink the group, or assign unique responsibilities.
When working in a large team, it’s easy to question whether individual efforts really matter. In a famous experiment, psychologists invited people to make as much noise as possible in groups, in pairs, or alone. In groups of six, each individual averaged only 40% capacity. As fewer members were involved, people made less noise in total, but each member’s average contribution increased. Individual contributions increased to 51% capacity when the group was reduced from six members to four, and spiked to 71% capacity when people worked with just one colleague. The smaller the group, the more responsible each member feels for contributing. However, in some situations it’s difficult to shrink the group since the task requires many members. In those contexts, the easiest way to boost effort is to make sure each group member has a distinctive role to play. Karau and Williams found that free riding was common when people saw their contributions as redundant with other group members’ efforts. If each member is delivering something different, it can’t be taken for granted that someone else will cover you.
A manager needs to learn core coaching skills to get to the root cause of the issue and address it accordingly, says Elene Cafasso of Enerpace Inc. “Hopefully, the underperformers will improve, or you will discover that their skill sets can be better utilized in another area of the business. If not? Then it’s only fair to manage them out of the business so as not to demoralize those folks who do care and are doing a good job.”
So, if one conversation doesn’t do the trick, try again. It may be that you weren’t direct or specific enough the first time. You want to be able to come back to the person and say: “We talked about this, here’s what you said you would do, and here’s what hasn’t happened”. There might be a couple rounds of that. Monitor the progress and provide encouragement. If things don’t improve within the time period established, if the behavior persists and continues to negatively affect your work, then you probably aren’t on the same track and you should consider letting them go.