The social contract between employees and employers is undergoing rapid change. There are plenty of reasons for this: dramatic changes in technology, cultural amalgamation of global workforces, and the rise of Millennials.
For Utah’s leaders, one trend that’s especially important is the shift of power toward front-line employees. In the past, leaders could get away with complacency and blame-shifting because their positions naturally tilted the balance of power in their favor. That’s changing fast in the age of Glassdoor and unprecedented employee mobility. As more power transfers to the front lines, leaders must embrace more responsibility for the success of their employees — even the ones who struggle.
Let’s zero in on what this transformation means for how effective organizations handle struggling employees. If someone is failing at their job, simply telling them to “work harder” is like telling a depressed person to “be happy.” If they knew how, they’d already be doing it.
To be clear, there are plenty of lazy employees out there, and I’m not advocating for managers to enable bad behaviors. However, experience tells us that most underperformance is a byproduct of misaligned expectations, poor communication, a failure to empower, or all of the above. Most people want to be successful; the leader’s job is to show them how.
For leaders, it’s time to look inward. When you accept a leadership position, you also accept the mandate to lead, not order; to teach, not tell. Furthermore, leaders create the conditions that allow their employees to flourish or fizzle. Remember: you sourced, interviewed, and hired the employee. You onboarded them, trained them, and assigned them to a manager. You set the vision. You matched their assignments with their skill set. This isn’t an investment to take lightly or set loose without careful consideration for what may have gone wrong.
Before making any judgment on the value of an employee — and certainly before terminating someone who’s struggling — ask yourself and your leadership team the following questions:
A leader’s job is to set the team’s eyes on a big goal and show them how to get there. Often, struggling employees either don’t understand the vision or don’t know how their work supports it. Be as clear and explicit as possible in communicating both of these points. Give them a seat at the table when setting goals to which they’ll be accountable.
You may have a clear idea of what you expect from an employee, but they can’t read your mind. Just as the vision and their role in advancing it need to be clear, so does your expectations of them in terms of daily performance. Get granular on non-negotiables. For everything else, give the employee autonomy to reach the goals you agreed upon. They might surprise you by finding a better route to success, even if it’s not the one you envisioned for them.
Leadership is a contact sport. You have to be willing to work directly with employees to provide coaching and training. Some of this can be outsourced to subject-matter experts, but ultimately the onus is on leaders and direct managers to teach, instruct, correct, and calibrate employees’ skills and behaviors. In addition, beware of hypocrisy, even if it’s unintentional. Employees will pattern their behaviors after what they see, not what they hear. As a leader, you have to model the behavior you want to see in others and reinforce it through public recognition and rewards.
Ask these questions, and be honest about the answers. If you’ve done everything in your power, the next step is to evaluate whether the employee’s direct manager is the right fit. Struggling employees, in particular, need excellent day-to-day supervisors, not people who were promoted for strong individual contributions and are learning how to lead on the fly.
Clearly the best practices above are not guaranteed to rehabilitate every underperforming employee. However, if you take the steps listed, whether or not the road leads to success in the current role, you’ll both feel justified in the outcome. And, when all parties feel justified in the process and outcome, the vast majority of negativity is mitigated. Respect and trust is maintained.