Written by Michelle Gapes on June 4th, 2019
Employees underperform for a variety of reasons - finding out the cause is key to providing a solution. Underperformance could be down to lack of knowledge, misunderstandings or external factors. How you approach underperformance is different in each case, and it's important to gather as much information as possible before determining the best solution.
Identifying and approaching underperformance
Conversations about performance are difficult enough as it is, let alone when there's an issue to deal with. When you need to talk to a colleague about underperformance, you'll get the best out of the meeting by gathering some background information from a variety of sources.
Understanding the cause
You'll likely be having a conversation about underperformance because an employee isn't meeting expectations or displaying the core behaviours required. These competencies come from what's outlined in the position description, as well as past performance reviews and assessments. These documents should be your first port of call.
A fairly common problem is that the position description doesn't accurately describe the requirements and expectations of the role. One of the first things an employee is given upon joining an organisation is the position description. If that's not up to scratch, the employee is already facing an uphill challenge to meet expectations. Writing a good position description is a skill in itself, and many companies lack understanding about what should be included.
Performance plans and assessments, meanwhile, make clear exactly what's been agreed and communicated in the past. Ideally, these documents will state what the requirements of the role are, how expectations are measured and whether or not the employee is performing as required. This process usually works better when the manager and employee do this together, so everyone is clear about what's expected. Who was involved in conversations should be one of the first things you check, as you may find the employee isn't aware of their targets.
You can also find out from other colleagues how the employee is working, and what issues have occurred. You can do this by asking directly, but you'll also gain insight by listening to what conversations are happening within the team around what is or isn't working. In client-facing roles, you can also ask for feedback as soon as a project finishes so you have an up-to-date snapshot of how the employee is performing.
Approaching conversations about underperformance
These conversations are difficult for the employee as well as the manager. It's important that managers attend with an open mind, and allow an honest discussion to take place. Finding out what's causing the issue is the first objective, followed by designing a solution together.
A significant part of the manager's role is listening to the employee about what issues have been identified and why they happened. However, asking questions also helps to get a deeper understanding of the barriers to performance.
By providing space for honesty, you might find that the employee was simply unclear what was expected of them from the outset, or that there is something happening outside of work that's affecting their performance.
Take care to approach solution-finding together, but also be firm about expected performance and the time frame for improvement. Be specific about the impact their underperformance has on the team, and the wider business. Making expectations clear in these meetings is crucial should underperformance continue.
Providing opportunities for employee development
Coaching is a big part of being a good manager, and should be an everyday activity. Informally, it should be part of daily communications through regular and open conversations about how things are going, what issues have cropped up and how to solve them.
The best style of coaching varies according to where the employee is in their career, or how experienced they are. An experienced employee might need very little support, whereas someone new to the workforce may need lots of coaching to help them learn the necessary skills.
A style of coaching referred to as "push pull" suggests different approaches according to the scenario. Push coaching is a more directive approach in, where managers are providing solutions and guiding improvement. Pull coaching is about listening and reflecting, helping the employee to summarise their thoughts and form solutions themselves.
Coaching doesn't need to focus solely on the individual. Team members can provide ad-hoc coaching as questions arise and approach a collaborative approach to problem-solving. Organisations can also organise team or companywide training days, providing an opportunity for departments to share knowledge and discuss together.
Managers can get a lot from encouraging open communication within the team, ensuring problems are talked about as they occur and resolved quickly thanks to support from those with expertise.
Coaching doesn't always come naturally to managers, and leading these types of conversations is difficult. Training managers in effective communication is really helpful, as well as providing opportunities for role play so they can build their confidence in approaching these discussions. Encourage managers to think about where they have these conversations, as their office may not be the best place for an open and honest conversation.
At Strategic Pay, we provide training around writing good position descriptions and how managers can approach this. We coach managers around having difficult conversations and provide performance development frameworks. If you'd like to find about more about what we offer, talk to our team today.