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6 tips for managing the underperformer


By Sandra Wiley

You may have heard it before, or you may have uttered these words: “Why did we wait so long to let an underperforming employee go?”

In some organizations today, it may be called the underperforming epidemic or the under-performer drag, but no matter what words you are using to describe the problem, the results are the same — organizations suffer when leaders do not take action. The other word I hear when talking about employees who is just doing OK is that they may not be overachieving, but they are probably average. I have been attending Strategic Coach (an entrepreneurial coaching think-tank) for many years, and one of the concepts that we hear is “that average is where the worst of the best meets the best of the worst.” That does not sound like the kind of organization you really want to build, does it?

Results from a recent Career Builder survey involving more than 2,000 U.S. employees revealed that 27 percent of bosses “have a current direct report they would like to see leave their company.” Many of you are either in this category or know another leader in your organization who feels this way. Think about people in the organization that, if they left for another opportunity, you really would be OK. Now ask yourself, how are you managing them today? Common strategies include:

  1. We point out their shortcomings in blunt little comments that we hope they catch so that we don’t really have to have a conversation with them. Really, has this ever worked to turn around a person’s performance? It’s very unlikely.
  2. We reduce their job responsibilities, which much of the time means that they get to do less for the same pay, and we transfer a higher workload to our superstars. Think about where the reward is happening in this scenario. Your under achiever is winning, and your top talent is being punished.
  3. Fire them. That can work, but sometimes that is shortsighted because we may have overlooked a way to manage them and make them better, so we have lost people who, if we had simply worked with them in a different way, could have been amazing. You will never know.
  4. Do nothing. Sadly, this is the most likely thing that is being done right now. Ignore them, and the issues might right themselves, or maybe the person will just go away. Again, this is not likely.

Rather than trying one of the strategies above, let’s discover the strategies that will work for you, the underperformer, and ultimately, the organization.

  1. Communicate daily. That does not mean that you must have a face-to-face, hour-long meeting daily. An email, an instant message or a quick stop in their office are imperative to help connect underperformers to the job requirements. These communications should be all about their performance, not just personal issues.
  2. Train your supervisors – and getting training yourself. Growing your knowledge and your team’s knowledge is critical to helping everyone in the organization. Teaching can come from books, web seminars, conferences, internal training and coaching. Your excuse cannot be that there are no resources or opportunities. The only excuse you could possibly give is, “I don’t want to,” and that is not how a true leader thinks.
  3. Coach, counsel and mentor. Ensuring that you are coaching individuals to improve in the moment performance issues, counseling to correct personal or outside the professional guidelines issues and mentoring to ensure long-term professional goals within the organization are all part of helping underperformers improve their careers to achieve a higher level of success. Identifying and showing support by correcting is imperative to underperformers to feeling like they are important to the organization and the organization’s leaders.
  4. Tie their jobs to the overall firm goals. All employees like to feel like what they’re doing is important. They want to know that they are making a difference. The more you can tie what they are doing to the overall strategies of the firm, the more likely you will be to turn their performance around. This will not be as easy as it sounds. Enlisting their help in this is important. Also, as you talk through their responsibilities, you will need to watch them do the work, have them do the work and last, watch them again.
  5. Teach them – don’t just say no. We have a habit of saying no automatically when our team members – especially the less experienced ones – come up with new ideas or ask questions. It is sometimes blatant and sometimes more subtle, but the message is sent with a megaphone to the team members, “Don’t ask questions, just do your work.” That is a killer to star performers and underperformers alike. Instead, stop, listen, allow. Stop what you are doing. Listen to the idea. Allow yourself to ask questions and clarify before you decide to move forward, get more information or stop the idea.
  6. Write it all down. Capture all of the communications and work that you do with the underperformer. If the worst-case scenario happens and you must terminate, you will want all of your hard work recorded.

Identify your underperformers and don’t allow drag for one more day. Follow the steps above and work hard to change their results. However, if you don’t see the improvements you want, don’t be afraid to make the hard decision to let them find other opportunities that will fit them better.

LEA_Sandra WileySandra Wiley, COO and shareholder, is ranked by Accounting Today as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Accounting as a result of her prominent role as an industry expert on HR and training as well as influence as a management and strategic planning consultant. Wiley developed the P3 Leadership Academy and hosts regional trainings around the country. She is also a founding member of The CPA Consultant’s Alliance.