The art of addressing mediocre performance in a way that preserves the relationship is the subject of this week's Leader's Digest Mail Bag Q & A.
Dear Leader’s Digest:
I am struggling with some employees who are just not cutting it. Their performance is mediocre at best, but there is not enough cause to terminate them. Other employees have complained about them. Customers have not complained about them but they never receive compliments either.
I feel as though I am stuck with these people who are not up to par. How can I better handle employees who just skate by doing the minimum?
Dear Managing Mediocrity:
We hope you're sitting down because our answer is going to suggest more work than you might have hoped. But we can assure you that if you really want to raise performance for not only these low performers, but for the entire employee, this is an approach that may help.
First, let’s agree on the real problem. The issue you're facing is not low performers. The issue is low expectations. If these two employees are truly low performers and yet “there is not enough cause to terminate them,” then you are operating in a culture with mediocre norms. And if that’s true, then the work you have to do is not first and foremost with the low performers, it is with chronically bad group norms. If your team was crystal clear on high performance expectations, mediocrity would be painfully apparent and you wouldn't have to make a tough call when it came time to coach, counsel or redeploy.
So, how do you reset norms? How can you set a high performance standard that makes dealing with mediocrity much clearer?
1. Confirm the Company’s HR Standard. You, your peers, your supervisors, and HR need to have a uniform and explicit understanding about the kind of performance you expect from employees, their position and the duties they are performing in your department.
2. Go Public. Once you have sufficient support from the people identified in step 1 for the hard decisions involved with a higher performance standard, you'll have to go public. Let people know the bar is being raised. Let them know of any implications for jobs, for development, and any other consequences people will need to understand so there are no surprises. Acknowledge that the norms-expectations were different in the past, without sounding self-righteous and judgmental of past leadership. Frankly state how things will be going forward and why this is right for the store and good for those involved. Sell the vision as a way of instilling pride and ambition. Let people know that there will be ample and just opportunities to upgrade their contribution, as well as how you'll support that with candor, coaching, and development.
3. Coach, Coach, Coach—Redeploy. Now live the standard. If someone performs below the standard,coach them—have the “content” conversation to let them know the gap between what they did and what you expected. Three factors set those who are adept at talking about mediocre behavior apart from the rest of the pack: research, homework and connection. First, you need to gather data. Have a talk with the marginal employees about what they like and don't like about their current work situation. What are their frustrations, aspirations, and concerns? Approach your “research” conversation with a genuine desire to discover underlying barriers and then see if you can find ways to resolve them.
Next, scrupulously gather facts—from memory and observation—that will allow you to describe in illuminating detail the difference between mediocrity and excellence. This is crucial. Many managers are so vague about the difference that they end up using the feel-good, mean-nothing terms that typically pepper pregame speeches, such as “We need you give 110 percent.” This advise may make sense to those giving it but it only confuses and insults the people who are supposed to change. Ask yourself, what actual behaviors can I describe to make this distinction clear?
Finally, connect your homework with your research. Explain how your recommendations will not only bridge the performance gap but help them achieve their aspirations. When you make this link your influence will increase enormously. Also, this would be a great time to use goal setting to engage the employee in identifying and resolving the performance shortfall.
If it continues, coach again—but this time have a “pattern” conversation—let them know this is now a chronic concern, not an isolated concern. If needed, this escalation is documented and any necessary support in the form of training, mentoring, work process change, etc., is offered. If it happens again, it’s time for a “relationship” conversation. At this point the person must know that redeployment is an option. This must be put in writing to allow no wiggle room in understanding.
In conclusion, the greatest challenge you'll face in coaching is not the individual's performance, but your own clarity. Far too few managers know how to articulate the difference between mediocre performance and good performance. And if you can't describe it you can't expect it. You must do the hard work of detailing the behaviors and results you expect to see and contrasting those with typical mediocre performance. Every minute you spend more expertly articulating expectations will save you an hour in debate and resentment later.
All the success,
PM in the AM