Every manager has, at some point in his or her career, dealt with unacceptable employee behavior. It could be someone who whines, assigns blame, worries incessantly, or watches the clock. How do you get the results you need without damaging a relationship or creating resentment?
Steps Toward Improved Performance
Ann Marie Sabath is the author of six books on domestic and international etiquette, including Business Etiquette: 101 Ways To Conduct Business With Charm & Savvy (Career Press, 1998). She explains four key rules for turning a poor performer into a great one.
"First," Sabath says, "employ behavior modification with a poor performer. Let the person know what he or she is accomplishing successfully. Second, do a "Compare and Contrast" needs assessment with the person. This will allow both you and the poor performer to understand how to rate certain tasks. Third, get the person to make a commitment to you." This means encouraging them to set goals and allowing them to develop their potential. "Fourth," Sabath concludes, "find out exactly what makes this person tick. This will help you to become acquainted with where this person wants to be professionally in five years. If you find you are dealing with a square peg in a round hole, you may be able to place this person in a [better] position."
According to Joanna Slan, author of Using Stories and Humor (Allyn and Bacon, 1997) and the owner of a successful family business, show them the money. "When considering the problem of underperforming workers," she says, "management often overlook an obvious and relatively easy fix: compensation packages.
"In our business," Slan continues, "we wondered why, in one store, salespeople were consistently underperforming and the manager was making quite a lot of money. We went through all the possibilities and determined that the problem couldn't have been traffic, couldn't have been merchandise, and certainly didn't seem to be a lack of skills. As it turned out, the problem was compensation. We had designed a compensation plan that gave the manager more money for his personal sales than for the sales of the team. Therefore, the team members quickly learned never to go to the manager for help. In fact, they were hiding prospects!
"Once we compensated our manager so that he made more money for teaching, helping, and supporting his sales staff, sales took off like a rocket. As the wits in the total quality management movement used to say, 'Fix the problem, not the blame'. Too often," Slan says, "we try to fix people when it's our systems that stink."
Pamela Harper, founder and president of Business Advancement, believes that every organization defines poor work behavior according to its own culture. For example, a salesperson's tendency to make quick decisions (adjusting prices or terms to gain a sale) without going through proper channels is frowned upon in one company--but the same behavior is acceptable in a different company.
However, some performance issues are always problematic. Problems include consistently missing sales goals and deadlines, apparent breaches of ethical behavior (sexual harassment, vandalism, theft), excessive absenteeism, excessive conflict with other people and departments. "All of these issues left unredressed," says Harper, "can result in the persistent organizational problems (low morale, confusion, customer dissatisfaction) that I call strategic gridlock."
To turn this situation around, Harper recommends that managers coach poor performers as soon as they become aware of the problem. To address individual performance, she recommends using the "UNLOCK" system to solve any problems.
U: Understand the issues and assumptions before taking action. Too often, managers make assumptions about why an employee is performing poorly without understanding the employee's side of the story. For example, there may be a simple misunderstanding--or the person may not have actually committed a breach of ethics. "I've seen managers jump to conclusions and take actions," Harper confides, "that weren't necessarily appropriate, such as irrelevant training and unjustified discipline. Frequently, there are unknown circumstances that are important to making a good decision. Managers need to make sure that they have multiple perspectives before taking action."
N: Negotiate the employee's enthusiasm for the changes you want. Just because you mandate a certain behavior doesn't mean that the employee will automatically accept or adopt that behavior. Managers must be specific about the changes they want. Gain commitments from the employee about specific actions and time frames for which they'll be held accountable.
L: Locate the cultural issues that may be underlying poor performance. If a number of employees are performing poorly, the ideal culture (officially endorsed values, beliefs, and practices) may be at odds with the values, beliefs, and practices that really exist on the job. For example, salespeople who get the best perks, rewards, and praise may not cooperate with others. Employees may find that goals are set so high that their ability to achieve them suffers when they take time out to help others. "Before performance problems can be resolved," says Harper, "managers have to make sure that the formal culture is in sync with the informal culture."
O: Organize priorities, goals, and action plans so that new problems don't occur. Employees may perform poorly because of issues that are unique to their particular territory or situation. Before instituting changes, managers must be sure that the required behavior changes are realistic and appropriate to the circumstances.
C: Communicate credibly. All employees--especially employees with performance problems--need a steady stream of communication with their managers to get feedback on their performance. According to Harper, vague advice ("call me with any problems") doesn't work if the manager is usually unavailable when the employee calls. Managers need to ensure that they are available (in person, by phone, by e-mail, etc.) at times that work for both manager and employee.
K: Keep adjusting the coaching. In a rapidly changing business environment, one approach to performance improvement may not be enough. Managers and employees must establish frequent milestones for reviewing progress and identifying circumstances that may have changed. They are then in a better position, according to Harper, to look at the adjustments necessary to help the employee achieve improved performance.