What Managers Should Ask Themselves When Employees Aren't Performing

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In general, employees want to perform well on behalf of their company - whether it comes from personal drive or wanting to do well as part of the team. If an individual is underperforming in some way, usually there is an underlying cause other than laziness or lack of interest. According to Gallup, managers account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement scores across businesses. This means if an employee is underperforming or under-engaged, it might be time for their manager to take a look inward. When this happens, there are three questions every manager can ask themselves to get to the bottom of the issue, and hopefully prevent it from cropping up again in the future.

Question 1: Are the goals clear?

If an individual employee or team is underperforming, the first step to determining the underlying cause is to take a look at goal setting with the employee or team. Whether the task at hand is a project with a clear start and end date or an ongoing assignment, was an overall goal set and clearly communicated? Did you present the goal thoroughly and in context of how the desired result will benefit the company? Does your team know how their efforts are directly affecting the overall end goal? If your answer is ”no” to any of these, it might be worth circling back with the individual or team and having an open discussion about goals and how everyone feels they are tracking toward the desired result.

Question 2: Has the direction been set?

If the clarity of the overall goal doesn’t seem to be the root cause of the individual or team missing the mark, the next step is to ensure that clear expectations have been set for the strategy and tactics each contributing team member will employ. This might mean redefining the role each individual is expected to play or asking team members to share a quick status report and their plan for accomplishing the overall goal. If necessary, follow up with individuals to make sure they understand these expectations and communicate that your door is always open. Your accessibility should prevent anyone on your team from spinning their wheels or being afraid to ask for help or guidance. 

Question 3: Have the right tools been provided?

If you’ve determined that goals and strategy aren’t the issue, it’s time to take a look at whether you’ve provided the individual employee or team with the right tools for them to be successful. Is this task new to anyone on the team? Is any training needed before people can realistically tackle the project with the necessary skills? Getting this kind of feedback from your team requires a certain level of rapport and trust in your relationship with them. If they feel like they will get in trouble for giving you the “wrong” answer when asked about their level of comfort with the tools provided, they may be less than honest with you. Similarly, it is important for you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on your team. This will help you to be able to determine whether you’ve paired an individual with the appropriate resource and placed him or her in the correct role for the project.

Getting to the root cause of an underperforming employee can be tricky – there are a lot of factors at play and it often won’t be a quick fix. Take the time to understand every aspect of the situation and give your team the benefit of the doubt before moving on to more serious measures. Going through this exercise will strengthen your relationship with your employees and make you a better manager moving forward.

Matt Thomas is president of WorkSmart Systems Inc.

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