During a recent leadership roundtable, I was facilitating a group dialogue for research with a group of middle-level leaders who all had a minimum of 10 years’ management experience. During the session, I explored some of the current challenges and opportunities they are facing as part of the process to build the Business Leadership learning, skills, and tools they need to be more effective.
During the discussion, one of the of the leaders shared an interesting statement and question that we explored for more than an hour. The highlights and key learnings are summarized in this blog.
“I have a very difficult situation I am dealing with and I’m getting close to the point of giving up. For two primary reasons, it’s very difficult replacing employees at my company. Our HR processes are very cumbersome and it takes forever to exit someone, and because of our precarious business situation if we lose a person in our department, the job is typically not filled quickly for budgetary reasons. As a result, there is no motivation for employees to perform well and as a leader, I don’t have any tools to be effective. It’s very hard staying motivated because the team I am leading makes constant mistakes and are performing poorly. I’m not sure what to do.”
Based on the discussion, here are 4 solid suggestions the group came up with when trying to remain motivated with direct reports that are performing poorly.
Develop a Strategy for Giving Clear, Concise, and Meaningful Feedback and Feedforward
In a business environment where it is so difficult to exit the poor performers, you need do everything possible to make them better. Develop a strategy based on their skills and styles that provides very specific and detailed feedback and feedforward. In terms of the feedback, identify all the specific behaviors you want improved by sharing the impact of the poor behaviors and the clear directions you want to see the poor performer to follow to get there. Be careful that your list isn’t more than three or four items, so focus on the big issues and save the little ones for another day. The feedforward is coaching (to the best of your ability) to a vision of what passable performance looks like and the behaviors needed to get there. Even if you are 50% effective, it’s better than nothing.
Engage in a Dialogue to Understand the Poor Performer’s Perspectives
Whether legitimate or not, the poor performer has perspectives. The reasons will vary and range from anger to something delusional, but nevertheless, they have a perspective and the suggestion is to at least try to listen to them. Even though you may feel and think the exercise has no value, the mere fact that you are engaging with the poor performer by listening could move the performance to being more positive just a bit. Beside showing that you are listening, you might actually find out something or learn something that you didn’t know. That discovery could turn into some fixable action and even if it’s slight improvement, it’s improvement.
Identify, Recognize, and Reward Improved Performance
As much as you may not want to do it, having a performance dialogue that identifies, recognizes, and rewards even moderately improved performance is another positive solution. Even though you might be extremely frustrated and this feels like you are rewarding someone to do their job, it’s another strategy that you can use to improve performance and if performance improves it could help you become more motivated.
Follow-up and Don’t Give It
The best leaders follow up and their employees know they will follow up. It is imperative – especially when trying to raise up underperformers – to follow up diligently and with a sense of urgency. Conduct review meetings and get into the details. Point out mistakes and illustrate the right way of doing things. And it has to be consistent because the moment the underperforming employee sees you give up, they will try even less.