Manager Addresses Challenging Employee Performance Issue

September 10, 2019 Leadership Development

Thanks to everyone who responded to last month’s “What Would You Do?”

The scenario:

Laura is a new manager and is having difficulty with one of her six employees. This long-time employee moved into the department a year before Laura took over the management of the department. The employee comes to Laura with problems, rarely solutions, and even though Laura has asked her repeatedly to do her research ahead of time and bring solutions, the employee continues to interrupt Laura several times a day with problems to be solved.

Your Suggestions and My Additional Recommendations:

GAIL: Gail hit the nail on the head as to the first recommendation – “I would invite Laura to lunch and share my frustration with her.  There may be underlying jealousy or resentment over my moving in as her manager. I would try to make her an ally instead of a subordinate. I might ask her directly if she’s upset about me being her manager and ask her how she would solve my difficulty if our positions were reversed.”

THERESA: I call these heart-to-heart conversations. To date, Laura has been having head or transactional conversations with the employee. The focus has been on the issue or task, not the impact of the employee’s behavior on Laura or the lack of skill and/or initiative that the employee is taking in her work. Heart-to-heart conversations build the relationship and trust, give focus time to be with each other, and set the stage for ongoing dialogue about an employee’s performance.

RICHARD: Richard had some great insights. He suggests enlisting the help of another employee (who may be being groomed to be a manager) to coach the employee for some period of time. He states:

“If I were Laura, I would ask that prior to meeting with me, this employee needs to engage with this designated peer acting as coach/mentor to ensure the employee has the information Laura is requesting.  Employee and coach discuss and understand the issue/dilemma/problem/opportunity at hand and more importantly, have the information important to Laura to help her make a decision – a proposed solution, research, and the facts as she knows them, and what she would do if the decision were up to her.”

Richard also suggested that Laura set some boundaries around when she is available, how long the meeting can/should be, and at the beginning of each meeting that she asks the employee, “What do you need from me?” Lastly, Richard stresses the importance of both parties being fully present in the conversation, which means not taking phone calls, looking at your cell phone when it vibrates, or watching your email.

THERESA: These are great suggestions. Asking another employee to act as coach has its benefits, especially if that individual is in training to be a manager. A back-up plan should be set up in the event the coach isn’t available, and the employee needs an answer right away. It would be important for Laura and the employee to define what is an emergency that needs to be addressed immediately and what can wait for a scheduled meeting.

 I love the question that any manager can and should ask at the start of any meeting with an employee, “How can I help you? What do you need from me?”  This requires the employee to come prepared to answer that question. Does the employee need to give the manager an FYI, need input or a decision? When the manager knows what the employee needs upfront, s/he can be focused, and outcome-oriented during the meeting. This keeps the meetings short and productive for both parties.

JASON: Lastly, Jason encouraged Laura to be very clear about her expectations with the employee and put those expectations into writing with a set time frame for the expected changes to occur. He recommends that the two meet at some frequency to review how the employee is doing against the expectations. He adds that Laura may need to write up a formal improvement plan but also suggests that setting expectations is a good start.

THERESA: “Yes,” I say to setting clear expectations and holding frequent follow-up meetings until you see the performance change or, if it doesn’t change, having a clear next step.  If a manager is asking an employee to change his/her behavior, it is critical that the manager give feedback frequently to reinforce the development of the new behavior or skill. Just having a heart-to-heart conversation and setting expectations isn’t enough. By not following up with feedback, the employee gets the message that you are not serious and that it isn’t important enough to you to invest your time in working with him/her.  Stay in there until you see the changes you have requested, and if you don’t get them, be ready to follow through on the next step.

What did Laura do?

Laura is taking the steps discussed above with the employee, with one caveat: she decided to work one-on-one with the employee to go “back to the basics” and be sure the employee was trained properly. Laura had doubts that the employee was given the proper training when she moved into the position, and so Laura felt it important to start from scratch and be sure the employee has the knowledge and tools she needs to perform well in the position.  This is going well so far!

Thinking ahead, Laura has had a conversation with her manager to consider what happens if the employee cannot meet the performance expectations of the position. The company is very loyal to tenured employees, and so she knows that she needs to either find a way to tap into this employee’s strengths and capabilities so that the employee can thrive in this position or find another spot in the company for her. The company has a long history of working to keep tenured employees, so she wants to be sure she does that while ensuring that her department has the right people it needs to perform its tasks and serve the clients. Stay tuned for how this situation resolves itself!

If you have a situation that you would like to get some advice on, send us your scenario and we’ll respond in a future tip, or if you need advice right away, give us a call at (301)419-2835.