How to Help an Underperformer

by Amy Gallo | Harvard Business Review | June 23, 2014

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As a manager, you can’t accept underperformance. It’s frustrating, time-consuming, and it can demoralize the other people on your team. But what do you do about an employee who isn’t performing up to snuff? How do you help turn around the problematic behavior? And how long do you let it go on before you cut your losses?

What the Experts Say
Your company may have a prescribed way of handling an underperformer, but most of those recommended processes aren’t that useful, says Jean-François Manzoni, a professor of management at INSEAD and coauthor of The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail. “When you talk to senior executives, they’ll usually acknowledge that those don’t work,” he says. So chances are, it’s up to you as the manager to figure out what to do. “When people encounter an issue with underperformance, they really are on their own,” says Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and coauthor of the book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business. Here’s how to stage a productive intervention.

Don’t ignore the problem
Too often these issues go unaddressed.  “Most performance problems aren’t dealt with directly,” says Weintraub. “More often, instead of taking action, the manager will transfer the person somewhere else or let him stay put without doing anything.” This is the wrong approach. Never allow underperformance to fester on your team. It’s rare that these situations resolve themselves. It’ll just get worse. You’ll become more and more irritated and that’s going to show and make the person uncomfortable,” says Manzoni. If you have an issue, take steps toward solving it as soon as possible.

Consider what’s causing the problem
Is the person a poor fit for the job? Does she lack the necessary skills? Or is she just misunderstanding expectations? There is very often a mismatch between what managers and employees think is important when it comes to performance, Weintraub explains. It’s critical to consider the role you might be playing in the problem. “You may have contributed to the negative situation,” says Manzoni. “After all, it’s rare that it’s all the subordinate’s fault just as it’s rare that it’s all the boss’s.” Don’t focus exclusively on what the underperformer needs to do to remedy the situation — think about what changes you can make as well.

Ask others what you might be missing
Before you act, make sure to look at the problem objectively. You might talk to the person’s previous boss or someone who’s worked with him, or conduct a 360 review. When approaching other people, though, do it carefully and confidentially. Manzoni suggests you might say something like: “I’m worried that my frustration may be clouding my judgment. All I can see are the mistakes he’s making. I want to make an honest effort to see what I’m missing.” Look for evidence that might prove your assumptions wrong.

Talk to the underperformer
Once you’ve checked in with others, talk to the employee directly. Explain exactly what you’re observing, how the team’s work is affected, and make clear that you want to help. Manzoni suggests the conversation go something like this: “I’m seeing issues with your performance. I believe that you can do better and I know that I may be contributing to the problem. So how do we get out of this? How do we improve?” It’s important to engage the person in brainstorming solutions. “Ask them to come up with ideas,” says Weintraub. Don’t expect an immediate response though. The person may need time to digest your feedback and come back later with some proposals.

Read the rest of the article here.

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