Why Your Underperformer Isn't Changing

Have you ever been frustrated with a team member who isn't performing as you need — and who's showing no signs of changing?  

I've seen this issue come up several times lately with my executive coaching clients. And I've noticed that as frustrated as leaders are in this situation, sometimes they aren't giving employees the honest advice and specific feedback they need to change. They might be worried about damaging the relationship, or they think that an employee should "just know" what to do.

You can take an approach, though, that helps the employee (and keeps your relationship healthy) while getting you better results. Here's the process I advise for leaders who are dealing with a "stuck" employee.



Look at Your Mindset

Think about how you've been engaging with this employee. What role are you playing in the current situation? How are you enabling it to continue as it is? For example, I’ve noticed that when a leader starts showing frustration or micromanaging, it can put his team member in a place of fear and self-doubt. That can make it much more difficult for the employee to make change happen. What would help you get centered so you can address the situation in a more constructive way?

Set Clear Expectations

Sometimes leaders assume an employee should know, without being told, how to handle an assignment. Then they're disappointed when the employee doesn't read their mind and meet all of those unvoiced expectations. You'll do more to boost the employee's performance when you delegate with clear expectations. Spell out the deliverables, define their decision-making authority, and specify how often the employee should check in and any other key parameters of the project.

One of my clients has a boss who's discouraged by her performance but doesn't communicate expectations. He gives her assignments to test her capabilities – but doesn't tell her this upfront, or let her know what skills he's looking to assess or build. That approach hasn’t served either one of them well. He would improve his effectiveness if he communicated at the outset, "I'm giving you this assignment to see how you'll do and where I need to coach you, to help you be successful."

Give Specific Feedback

Think about whether you're offering the employee tangible, specific feedback. Are you communicating regularly about what's working and what's not? If you want her to make a shift in a certain area — say, being more strategic instead of tactical — are you letting her know this and explaining why this would help her succeed?

I teach my executive coaching clients a two-part formula for giving feedback. This approach gives the employee useful information she can take action on and keeps the emphasis on performance and results instead of personal criticism.

  1. As objectively as possible, tell the employee what you observed her doing. Share facts without interpreting them.

  1. Describe the impact of those actions. Your goal is to help the employee understand what she did and how it affected others. For example, did the actions she took (or didn't take) lead to a missed deadline? Misalignment of goals? Wasted time?

This week, apply at least one of these ideas to help a team member grow and improve. You'll find more ideas on giving feedback and helping your team members develop in Building a Strong Team, part of my Leadership EdgeSMseries. And you can get a sampling of the team-building advice from the WOW! Women on the Way to Peak Performance ProgramSMin the WOW! Highlight AudioSM. Start taking some small steps and you'll see big changes with your employee.

PS: If you're on the other side of this situation — dealing with a boss who's frustrated with you but not telling you how to improve — I'll have tips for you next week.