Turning Poor Performers Around

It’s not uncommon for managers to come across poor performers at some point in their careers. A poor performer is exactly as it sounds; someone who performs job duties poorly in relation to what is expected of them. Identifying who is a poor performer isn’t so hard, but before we start pointing fingers we must first come to understand why someone is a poor performer. Below there is a quick quiz made up of situational questions. Answer them honestly. After the quiz, we can take a closer look at the answers.

Situation 1:

One of your employees seems to be wandering around aimlessly. Do you…

  1. Tell them to get back to work?
  2. Ask them why they aren’t doing their assigned task?
  3. Let them be, they will get it done, you have more important things to do?
  4. Situation 2:

    One of your employees comes to you and tells you they can’t complete their task. Do you…

    1. Ask why?
    2. Show them again how to do it, then get back to your work?
    3. Have a co-worker help them complete it?
    4. Situation 3:

      One of your employees refuses to complete a task. Do you…

      1. Terminate them immediately?
      2. Take time to talk with them and understand why?
      3. Keep pressing them to complete their work and hope they eventually do it?
      4. If you have experienced any one of these scenarios, you are not alone. Every industry experiences the frustrations of poor performing employees that often put their managers in similar situations to those above. The key to turning these poor performers around lays in the way you answered each question. In all three situations, the employee is obviously not doing their work. But as you read, each question was different. As a manager, you must be able to identify why your employee is acting the way they are.

        Let’s begin with situation one where the employee is aimlessly wandering around. If this is happening, chances are the employee does not actually understand what their task is. At this point, you must understand you’re already at your first for in the road. You have to ask yourself why they do not know their task. Is it because you didn’t inform them? Is it because they missed a meeting or didn’t pay attention? Either way, the correct answer to the first question is to ask them why they are not working on their assigned task. The employee in this situation was not openly defying their task, nor were they coming to you saying they couldn’t complete it. They simply didn’t know their task. Part of being a good manager is understanding and correcting miscommunications within your organization, a problem that is all too common. If you have already informed them of their task and they still claim to be unsure of what to do, they might not have understood you. Oftentimes employees will be reluctant to ask questions, especially within the first few weeks on the new job, because they don’t want to seem incapable or make their manager feel like they are nagging. If an employee is not used to the company culture, they may be more reserved than normal and be reluctant to ask important questions, even those that are just to clarify. SO as it turns out, in situation 1, it may be the case that your employee is not a poor performer at all. Once they understand their task, they could perform it with great enthusiasm and productivity, and all it took from you was a step of clarification.

        Situation 2 mixes things up a bit. This situation assumes that the employee understands the task, but has come across some barrier that is preventing them from completing it. It is extremely important for you as the manager to engage in conversation with this employee to resolve the issue. The barrier could be a range of things. On the employee’s side, it could be that they had a family emergency come up and they need to delay the project. It could be that they do not understand how to complete it. On the manager’s side, the side easily overlooked by managers, it could be that the employee does not have enough time. This could mean that the employee is booked with too many other tasks, or that the task you have assigned them is too lengthy to fit in the allotted time slot. The employee might need to explain that the required resources to complete the tasks are not available. The correct answer in situation 2 is ‘A’, “Ask why”. Just like situation 1, the employee could be at a misunderstanding with management, or the manager could actually be the one at fault. As managers we are quick to point out poor performers, but not as quick to blame ourselves for their poor performance, but oftentimes that can be the case.

        The third situation is leaning toward the extreme end of poor performing employees. In this case the employee is unwilling to complete their task. This situation is the most dangerous and is one you do not want to encounter. Not only is this situation the hardest to correct, but it is the most damaging to the organization’s overall performance and profitability. If left uncorrected, this single employee could suck the life right out of the organization. These employees may be in direct defiance, or they may use subtle activities to show it. If it’s the ladder, they may be slowing down, creating an uncomfortable work environments for coworkers, or overlooking critical components which could lead to damaging your organization’s reputation. So for this situation, there are technically 2 correct answers. You may be saying immediate termination, and you are right. These poor performers do not belong in your organization and should be dealt with quickly as to avoid further complications and reduced performance. But have you ever thought about what could happen if you don’t stop to ask why this employee is acting the way they are? Consider that your employee is feeling drastically overworked and underappreciated. If this is the case, and especially if they have reached out to management but have been relatively ignored, they may choose to act out in defiance. It may not be true, other employees with similar workloads may seem to be handling it just fine, but isn’t it worth investigating? What if those other employees just haven’t spoken up yet, but each of them are stressed out over their workload? If a manager does not take the time to diagnose the problem and the validity of the statements from the poor performer, similar “situation 3’s” may be likely in your organization’s future.

        So, how can you actually turn poor performers around? To turn poor performers around, you have to improve on your ability to handle each of these 3 situations. Here are a few steps to take you in the right direction:

        Step 1:

        Make sure you have clearly articulated and outlined the task at hand for the employee. This will help prevent the first situation by ensuring that you are not liable by miscommunicating or not communicating to your employee. It will help you understand how good of a listener your employee is.

        Step 2:

        Follow up with your employee. Even if you clearly articulated your expectations and the components of the task, it is possible that they did not understand completely. It is also possible that they are not asking questions as talked about above. By following up you are breaking the ice that could keep your employee from performing the task well.

        Step 3:

        Understand the workload you give to your employees. It is not your job to understand their home life, nor is it your job to work around it. However, helping to ensure that your employees have a happy work-life balance could turn a poor performer into a good performer. Also, have an understanding of balance within work. Don’t overwork your employees, but make sure they are not becoming bored with their tasks, as boredom can lead to decreased performance. To prevent boredom, stay in touch with your employee about their motivation to move horizontally and/or vertically in the company. This benefits them, but also gives you more well-rounded employees by sharpening their skills in multiple areas.

        Step 4:

        Make sure your employees have undergone proper training for the task they have been assigned. If they haven’t, you should provide them with the proper training to ensure prompt and adequate completion of the task. You might also consider evaluating your current training program to ensure that it accurately reflects your current job description.

        Step 5:

        Become a better listener and communicator. Every bit of turning poor performers around comes back to your ability to understand the position that both you and the employee are in. If neither or only one of you utilize effective listening and communication skills, there are likely to be misunderstandings that will lead to subpar performance.

        Step 6:

        Remember that in the worst case scenario, it is critical to understand why your employees are acting the way they are. Doing so could help you prevent damaging situations in the future and keep coworkers on track and happy. Remember to be available to your employees for consultation so that the situation may not rise to an intense level. If your employees feel appreciated and understood, they are much more likely to stay good performers or even grow to be top performers. Sometimes the key to turning poor performers around is actually preventing them from becoming poor performers in the first place.