Whenever I put the question to a group of leaders about how to address a specific performance issue with an employee, one of the inevitable responses is to “explain to them how important it is that they do it right.”
According to author and leadership trainer Linton Sellen and his brilliant work on dealing with underperformance, this is almost always the wrong thing to do. Why? Because you are assuming the reason they fell short is that they chose to. You are trying to motivate them to choose to do it right next time.
The trouble with this approach is that most performance problems come down to the person not understanding what was expected, not having the right tools or training, not having the aptitude to do the work, or not being given ample time to get the work done. Rarely have they simply chosen not to do something well. Did you notice how the items on this list are similar? Spoiler—they are all the leader’s fault, not the employee’s!
When it is our fault an employee is failing, but we treat them as if they don’t care, what happens? In my experience, they in fact start to care less about what they are doing. What is the point, after all, if you are trying your best and your boss misses the root cause of the issues and just treats you like you are an idiot?
My advice when someone is underperforming? Consider one or more of these possible solutions:
• Explain your concerns with no judgment and seek their feedback about what the real problem is. I have written about this before.
• Explain carefully what your expectations are and have them repeat them back so you can both be confident that there is a shared understanding.
• Observe them doing the work to confirm they can do it on their own. Offer training and support if you see them struggling. Remember, some people won’t admit easily they need this kind of help.
• Make sure there is time and space for the person to get done what needs doing. I have personally overloaded people, thereby creating confusion about priorities. Don’t do this. Instead, help them manage priorities and if you see they are overloaded, help lighten the load.
• Admit to yourself they are not cut out for the work. Move them to a better suited position or end their employment.
Only once you have considered these approaches—and anything else that you think might shine a light on your responsibility as a leader—can you start working on the assumption that they don’t care and start trying to motivate them through disciplinary action or by simply explaining why it is important that they do the job right.