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Eight Steps for Dealing with An Underperforming Employee

By Randy Conley, VP & Trust Practice Leader, The Ken Blanchard Companies

  • Talking with team members about their performance challenges typically falls into the category of “least favourite” managerial tasks.

  • It is usually not something most leaders enjoy, yet it is a necessary and critical part of helping your team perform at its best.

Why do most leaders shy away from confronting poor performance head on? My experience has shown that it is normally because they don’t know where to start. Since the process feels uncomfortable and managers don’t have a plan to follow, they either do a poor job at addressing underperformance or they just don’t do it at all.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Managers can confidently and successfully deal with underperforming employees by following an eight-step plan. The first three steps involve what I call “looking in the mirror”, which is examining the leader’s role in the employee’s performance issue. The next five steps constitute “looking out the window”, which is exploring the employee’s role in the situation.

Looking in the mirror

Before having a conversation with the employee, the leader needs to look in the mirror and examine if they have done their part in helping the employee succeed.

Step 1: Did I set clear goals? All good performance starts with clear goals.

That is one of the key leadership principles Ken Blanchard and I discuss in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, many do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and put them to paper. How do leaders expect people to achieve their goals if they aren’t clear on what a good job looks like? And how can leaders accurately address poor performance if there isn’t a clear benchmark against which to measure?

Step 2: Did I accurately diagnose the employee’s development level?

People go through predictable stages of development when starting a new goal or task. Their development level on a task is a combination of competence (knowledge and skills) and commitment (confidence and motivation).

Most people commence a new goal or task as an Enthusiastic Beginner because they have high commitment but low competence in doing the task. As they gain a bit of competence, they typically experience a dip in commitment because they realise the task is harder than they thought. We call people at that stage of development a Disillusioned Learner. As they build competence and commitment on the task, they move into the stage of being a Capable, but Cautious Performer. They know most of what to do regarding the task, but they still have some self-doubt that causes them to question themselves or seek the help of more experienced colleagues. Finally, when a person is fully competent and committed on a task, they have become a Self-Reliant Achiever.

Step 3: Did I use a leadership style that matched the employee’s development level?

In The Ken Blanchard Companies’ SLII® leadership development model, managers are taught to use different leadership styles that match the development level of their employees. Leaders flex their style by deploying a combination of directive and supportive behaviours. For instance, when an employee is an Enthusiastic Beginner, a leader needs to use a Directive style that is high on direction and low on support to teach the employee the basics of doing the task. Disillusioned Learners need both high direction and support for them to develop both their competence and commitment. Leaders use a Coaching style, high on support but low on direction, to draw out Capable but Cautious Performers and help them step into their own power and knowledge. And of course, Self-Reliant Achievers can be given a Delegating style of leadership because they know what to do with minimal involvement from the leader.

Looking out the window

Leaders “look in the mirror” by examining themselves to ensure they have worked with the employee to set clear goals, accurately diagnosed the development level of the employee on each of those goals, and then used a matching leadership style to help the employee develop to peak performance. If leaders can answer in the affirmative to steps 1 to 3, then they can begin “looking out the window”.

Step 4: Is the employee unclear on goals and expectations?

It is not uncommon for there to be confusion between leaders and employees on goals. Here is an interesting way to test for goal alignment between a leader and a team member. Both the leader and the team member write down what they each believe to be the team member’s top 3 to 5 goals and then they compare notes. It is incredible how often there is a notable discrepancy between the two lists.

If there isn’t alignment on the specific goal, the leader needs to reset or renegotiate goals with the employee, or the leader needs to give feedback on what and how the employee needs to perform differently.

Step 5: Have things changed to impact goal achievement?

Conditions in the employee’s environment may have changed since the goal was first established, and as a result, their performance is being negatively impacted. Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

If this is the case, the leader may need to work with the employee to renegotiate the goal. Furthermore, the leader may need to work with the employee on a strategy to mitigate the environmental risks. The leader should also partner with the team member to facilitate problem solving. Sometimes obstacles cause employees to stall out in progressing on their goal, and they just need their leader to provide good coaching that assists them in solving their own issues.

Step 6: Is it a problem of competence or skill?

If leaders answer yes to this question, it means the employee is either an Enthusiastic Beginner or a Disillusioned Learner on the goal or task. In that case, the leader should provide a more directive style of leadership that involves showing the employee how to go about the task and setting up a step-by-step plan for learning, which will help the employee evolve into a Self-Reliant Achiever (fully competent and committed).

Step 7: Is it a lack of confidence?

If the employee has the competence to do the task but lacks confidence, it signifies that they are a Capable, but Cautious Performer. The leader’s job at this point is to build the employee’s confidence. How is that done? The leader uses highly supportive behaviour such as encouraging and reassuring the employee. The leader can also build the employee’s confidence by helping him/her reflect on past successes and highlight the progress he/she has already achieved on the goal or task.

Step 8: Is it a lack of motivation?

There are times when all of us experience the motivational doldrums. Whether it is personal or work-related, our motivational outlooks can impact our work performance. Identifying and connecting the employee’s contributions to the bigger-picture outcomes of the organisation can strengthen their motivation.

Most of the time, following the previously outlined steps will enable an employee to improve their performance. However, there will be occasions when leaders work through these eight steps and performance doesn’t get better. What to do then?

Leaders should challenge “won’t do” behaviour and flesh out the consequences of continued non-performance. But before resorting to such measure, consider that most people want to do a good job. Very few people wake up in the morning and tell themselves, “I can’t wait to be a total failure today!” Before “looking out the window” to address poor performance with an employee, leaders need to “look in the mirror” to see if they have done their part to set the employee up for success. After all, leadership is a partnership – it is something you do with people, not to them.


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