Are You Having the Right Conversation with Under Achievers?

As a leadership coach, I help executives and managers find solutions to the challenges they face. Sometimes it’s dealing with difficult employees, “managing” leaders at a higher level or preparing for intense negotiation. These activities are hard work, but rewarding. I also provide counsel during one of the most difficult and emotionally draining actions leaders must undertake in the corporate world: employee layoffs.

Unfortunately, when employees can’t do their job or are not a good fit, leaders need to break the relationship and refocus. It’s a difficult, humbling part of my work and it’s where I get to witness a variety of dynamics, reactions and situations.

Good employees are very valuable. A manager’s job is to make sure these people are in the right role for their skill-set. Excellent leaders take pride in their ability to nurture high performance teams by drawing out individual strengths to the benefit of the group. They recognize that everyone has a key role to play, and the manager must “redirect” anyone who strays from the team path. Yet sometimes I wonder how effective managers are in helping valuable but struggling employees find a role that best suits them?

Setting People Up for Success

I ask this because over the years, I have heard comments which indicate that employees were shocked when laid off. Regardless of the circumstance—poor performance or inappropriate behaviour included—a layoff notice should not be a surprise for the employee. A good leader will have provided the proper warnings, had the difficult conversations and engineered the realignment plans to help re-focus a struggling employee’s path. It’s tough to do, but done correctly, these strategies clarify the expectations and ensure everyone understands the consequences if expectations are met—or missed.

As a leader with the ability to significantly affect the lives of others through promotions and layoffs, it’s important you take the proper steps to make sure that terminating an employee is the final and only option to you. Because once you hand out the pink slip, you need to feel confident that the end result was in the best interest of the company AND the individual.

Recently, I was involved with a client who had to layoff some staff members. My role was to help the individuals go through the change process. During the project, I came across a situation where a very valuable employee was being let go. “George,” (not his real name), had been with the company for six years. He had a good reputation, clients were happy with him and there were no complaints from management. About 6 months ago, a new manager came on board with new directives. She was under a lot of pressure to show significant progress in a short period of time. The new objectives required employees to change the way they worked. George said this manager used demeaning language, raised her voice and belittled the employees in order to get them to adopt new behaviours. This triggered George’s “hot” buttons and he was clearly frustrated with her lack of respect. As a seasoned employee, he was very assertive and pushed back on her command and control style. Unfortunately, this was seen as insubordination, and in the end, a valuable staff member with six years of experience, was let go.

Is it Them… or is it YOU?

I am obviously simplifying what I perceive happened, but the lesson is: when a reputable employee is having difficulty under your leadership… is it really just about them? Maybe you need to look in the mirror to see the problem? How clearly have you communicated your expectations? Do they know what is needed of them and why? Are they in a role that best utilizes their strengths? Do they understand the big picture? Do YOU see the big picture? Are you aware of how you are perceived when you communicate and act with this employee?

These questions are difficult but must be considered by good leaders. Having these tough conversations is critical to the well-being of the workplace and will command you respect because you are doing the right thing. Over the years, I have used the following guidelines to ensure my clients are doing all that they can when faced with employee productivity issues:

  1. Investigate the facts. Having real facts goes far when trying to solve a problem while rumours get you nowhere. Is your underperforming employee having issues at home? Did they understand the new protocols? Did they read the memo?
  2. Abide by the 24/72 hour rule. When upset, if possible, take 24 hours to cool off before you respond. You need to show up in control and be logical! Yet, don’t delay the conversation for more then 72 hours; otherwise, you risk sending the message that poor performance or inappropriate behaviour is acceptable.
  3. Use a methodology for constructive feedback. Your first task should be to gather the facts, listen to your employee’s perspective and make sure they feel comfortable as you provide your viewpoint. I suggest the STAR method: describe the Situation and the Task (or behaviour) that was performed by gathering the facts, then describe the Action that was taken and the Results. “John, I noticed that after a few minutes on the call, your language started to change and words deemed offensive were used. This resulted in the client escalating a complaint to my attention. We now have to deal with an important client who is fuming and hesitating to renew his support contract with us. This contract is worth around $250,000.” Relating the Situation and Task without judgment will help your employee receive the message and stay in the logical plane. It also makes sure you are looking at the issue from the same perspective and that your facts are correct. You can then choose to either coach John to get a better Action and Result, or you can become directive in outlining what could have been done better.
  4. Work with the employee to outline a corrective action plan. Accountability is the key to making new behaviours stick.
  5. Follow up with the appropriate actions. This may be a weekly or even a daily check-in to monitor your employee’s performance and motivation.

When going through this process, your intent will have a huge impact on the outcome. Coming from a place of compassion and helping your employee take the right steps for aligning their behaviour or increasing their skill-set will boost the probability of a positive outcome. The opposite will occur if your approach is vengeful or full of ill intent.

Finally, if your employee’s behaviour does not change and the problem persists, you must take action. With each subsequent occurrence, be clear that their behaviour is unacceptable and that failure to change could result in termination. At the same time, you must be prepared for the day when you may have to layoff this employee. If termination is the end-game, you can rest assured that you did take corrective action but things just didn’t work out. In these difficult situations, working with HR will be invaluable to ensure all laws and best practices are observed. Furthermore, providing a good career transition program is vital to keeping the dignity of the employee and helping them move ahead faster with less emotional difficulties.

Tough conversations and potential layoffs are not a fun subject; however, it’s a reality for leaders like yourself. Having the right conversation at the right time makes sure the end result is as positive and productive as possible. Until then…

Be amazing!


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