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How to help a struggling employee to improve engagement and performance

People often ask me, “What should I do when one of my team members isn't performing?"


One of the keys to effectively manage and coach your people is to make everyone’s performance clearly visible using a software dashboard. The Harvard Business School calls this management approach “radical transparency” and it has been found to deliver superior results.

In order for this to work properly however, it is vital to ensure you have current, accurate performance data on your software dashboard:

  • KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) need to show the current score.

  • Projects and Tasks need to be updated to reflect the current reality and show clearly what everyone is working on right now.

You see, our brains are strongly motivated by a sense of fairness. When every individual’s performance is made visible, the way we manage and coach our people becomes highly objective. When your dashboard is “telling the truth”, everyone can see how everyone else on the team is performing, and all employees get treated fairly according to their performance.

Most importantly, the manager can clearly see who is doing well and praise and recognize those people or the good work they are doing every week. On the flipside, the manager can also see who is struggling, and who needs their help and support.

What to do when someone is struggling?

Peter Drucker said:

“Leaders owe it to the organization and their fellow workers, not to tolerate non-performing people in important jobs.”

Personally, I can’t think of any job that is not important, can you? Here’s where I see many managers come unstuck. They invest in software dashboards like RESULTS.com to make Key Performance Indicators, Projects and Tasks visible, which is a great start, but then they fail to close the loop.

I have a saying:

“Successful Business Execution is 20% giving people clarity about what needs to be done, and 80% following up to make sure it actually gets done”

If you use management dashboards, you must run effective meetings every week to discuss performance and coach your people accordingly.

Good performance needs to be acknowledged with praise and recognition.

Don’t assume people know that you value their contribution just because their Goals are “in the green” and their Tasks are getting done. Acknowledge their work and thank them.

We saw in a previous article that studies show companies who effectively praise and recognize their staff are more profitable.  

Poor performance needs to be called out.

It’s not fun, but it has to be done. Problems seldom fix themselves. If you allow KPIs to be “in the red”, or Projects and Tasks to fall overdue, without saying anything and taking visible action to address the issue, the manager is implicitly saying to the entire team that, “Poor performance is OK around here”.

If you allow poor performance to be the norm, a culture of mediocrity develops. People show and up do their work, but no-one takes performance and accountability seriously. If you are not careful, they will not take the manager seriously either.

Let’s assume for the sake of this article that someone is struggling on your team. You believe that you have honestly fulfilled your side of the bargain so far: you hired a suitable person for the role, provided them with clear expectations about the Core Values behaviors, key Tasks, and KPI performance standards they need to deliver on (and you both agree these standards are relevant and achievable).

You have also provided them with the appropriate tools, training, mentoring and support they need to succeed. If not, then you need to start by fixing these things first. Otherwise, here is my recommended approach.

Ask coaching questions.

Employee accountability

If someone is struggling, talk to the non-performer a non-threatening and supportive way by stating the observable facts that are visible on your dashboard, and then ask the following 3 questions, e.g.

“I see the number of sales appointments you booked last week is ‘in the red’ again..."

  1. What’s happening here?
    Allow the employee to respond. There may be valid reason for something not getting done.
  2. What action can we take this week to move this forward?
    Let them come up with solutions first. Then suggest others.
  3. What support do you need?
    Make it clear that you are on their side and that your role is to support your team members to be successful. Work together to come up with tangible actions, and capture them as Tasks.

Follow up next week to make sure these Tasks got done, and assess their impact on performance.

It is important for both parties to know that this same 3 question sequence needs to occur each and every week whenever any performance issues are identified (e.g. Goals not being reached / Tasks not getting done).

Coaching for better outcomes.

If the person makes the necessary improvements, praise and recognize their progress and make them feel like the winner they are.

If however they are habitually falling short, and can’t make the necessary improvements within an agreed time frame, then it is your role as a manager to do something about it.

Don’t let poor performance fester. Your team is looking to you for leadership. Just like the coach of a sports team, you only win when your team succeeds. Your job as a manager is to select, train, coach and support a team of winning players.

If someone is unable to perform on your team, you either:

  1. Coach them to meet the standard,
  2. Find them a new position where they can meet the standard, or
  3. You owe it to the rest of the team to remove them from the field.

You do want to manage a team of winners don't you?

Being a manager (coach) means giving people regular feedback on their performance. This means giving them praise and appreciation every week when people are going well. It also means confronting poor performance every week when people are not going well.

To be blunt, if you aren’t comfortable with giving feedback every week, then you should not be managing people. Who do you have on your team right now that needs coaching, where you can use this approach?

Head of Strategy and Consulting – RESULTS.com
Stephen Lynch

Author of the award winning business book Business Execution for RESULTS & President of RESULTS.com, Lynch is an internationally known Strategy Consultant and a contributing writer for The Economist magazine.

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