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Posted by on Sep 15, 2014

How to Manage a Low-Performing Employee

It’s many Federal supervisors’ worst nightmare, and yet if you are one of those supervisors, it’s likely to happen at some point in your career.

It’s the under- or low-performing employee – one who can’t or won’t do the work well, or very much of it. For whatever reason – and stayed tuned on that point – work is just not getting done.

A few years ago, our team at Management Concepts did a webinar on the topic and the switchboard blew up. About triple the number of people who usually listen in to these things showed up, anxious to know what to do.

I have some answers for you. But first, you, the supervisor, have to make a pivotal decision. Everything rides on this.

You have to decide whether you are going to take a stance of supporting the employee to perform, or put the employee “in the barrel.” This huge decision means either letting the employee know that you are in his or her corner, and will do everything you reasonably can to help, or essentially setting up him or her to fail. Being in the barrel means a supervisor is orchestrating events and interaction so the employee feels progressively more under fire, fearful and doubtful. When an employee feels the lack of support, it can generate a downward spiral, in which the employee starts to have to think about whether he or she actually knows how to tie his or her own shoes. (This is because you have activated the threat center in the employee’s brain.)

It could also be called paralysis.

Of course, this crippling doubt, which is not so uncommon as many might think, only leads to a performance deterioration. So, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s say that you decide to avoid this virtual guarantee of failure. Congratulations. Now let’s figure out how to make things better – for the work, the employee, the organization and you.

This may sound strange, but it’s critical that you notice your non-verbal communication and resolve to be positive in talking with the employee. Frowning, grimacing, eye-rolling or displaying any negative emotion will “leak out” and send a counter-productive message to the employee, leading to the situation described above.

Your goal, which must be mirrored in your words and non-verbal communication, must be to help. If this is what you really want, the employee will feel and sense it. It will create a sense of encouragement, a partnership, alignment, support and strength.

Along the way, be sure you comply with Merit Systems Principles on addressing inadequate performance.

From here, it’s important to run the standard performance diagnostic that helps to create clarity on why performance is so low or non-existent:

Federal Performance Diagnostic_Graphic_140910-01

What I have noticed about many supervisors over the years is that they often leap to the conclusion that the poor performance is due to employee laziness or lack of interest. It may be, but it’s better to come to that conclusion after first ruling out other factors.

Let’s get on the record here that you may do everything in your power to help the employee perform, and he or she won’t. In this case, you are fully within rights to either reassign the employee or, in the worst case, terminate the employment.

A final thought on that latter possibility: Of all the factors that can cause a downward spiral in a life – and we are talking about things like homelessness, drug abuse, failed relationships, family break-up – the loss of a job is the No. 1 factor.

Ending someone’s job is not to be taken lightly. A lot is on the line, and yet, as a supervisor you have to “do the right thing” for the organization, too. Knowing you have pulled out all the stops, and done everything you can to help the employee perform may help you live with the decision better than if you had come to a summary judgment.

The other key point on this is that it is the employee’s accountability to try to improve, to communicate openly, to do the right thing. I am under no illusion that some employees are playing a game, apparently having sensed a supervisor’s unwillingness to act – or because his or her hands have been tied by someone higher up. This is unfortunate, as it creates cynicism in the workplace, lower morale and a sense of inequity in workload. All that is the subject of another blog.

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