5 conversations to help a struggling employee


Sometimes our employees struggle to perform at the level we need them to.  Sometimes, we can help.  Sometimes, we can’t.

Here are 5 conversations to help you tell the difference.

Conversation #1: Clarify expectations
Once you notice a problem, don’t let it go too long before you talk about it with your employee.  Clarify expectations and be specific.  This may have simply been miscommunication or a misunderstanding of the project they were given.

Be sure to uncover any underlying training needs.  Are you sure they know how to do what you’re asking?  Have they ever been taught?  Sometimes what we feel is common sense isn’t necessarily as common as we thought.

To determine an employee’s fit with the position, Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller listed these questions in The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do:
What are his strengths?
Do they match the role?
Is he in the right role?
Was he properly trained?

The “why” may be important too.  Many employees feel good about contributing to a larger vision, so let them know how their work helps to move the company forward.

Don’t forget to point out things they’re doing well.  This helps to keep the conversation balanced and constructive.  Plus, we tend to do more of something when we’ve been told we’re good at it.

Find a behavior you want that employee to continue doing, and let them know it’s appreciated.

But if that doesn’t work…

Conversation #2: Accountability
Consider giving an assignment that requires them to use the skills you’ve asked them to demonstrate.  Is it critical thinking? Independent thinking? Being more organized? Meeting deadlines? Mastering a new tool?

Assign a project that sets them up to win — to achieve what you’re asking them to do.  This will help to build their confidence.  Plus, it gives you an opportunity to praise them for the accomplishment and strengthen the closeness of the team.

Some refer to this as “Stewardship Delegation.” Steven Dooey has good examples for this in “The Art of Making Time.”

Be sure that they understand that you want them to be part of the solution.  Let them know that your goal is to see them succeed and to feel good about the work they do.

But if that doesn’t work…

Conversation #3: Shadowing
At this point, we really need to bail out the employee and help them realize this is possible.  They can do this!  And to help them feel that they’re not alone and that they’re not abandoned, you’re going to help.

Show them — by example — what you need from them.  Have them shadow you doing the behaviors you’re trying to get them to exhibit.  Then ask them to give it a try.

This could be the break-through moment — especially if you’re dealing with an employee who feels that they’re not capable of doing what you ask.  That’s a confidence issue, and that has a good chance of being remedied.

But if that doesn’t work…

Conversation #4: Give it one more try
At this point, it’s likely that you’re able to rule out root causes of the problem that will be easy to fix.  If it’s a confidence issue, you’ve shown them that they are truly capable.  If it’s a learning issue, you’ve provided the proper training.  If it’s a clarity issue, you’ve circled back to ensure everyone understands what is expected.

So it’s time to consider that it could be something that you have no control over.

Our employees are human.  They’re affected by a number of variables we can’t control including physical discomforts or pain, cognitive challenges, emotional strain, hormonal imbalances, quarter-life and mid-life crises, identity issues, turmoil at home, and other distractions.

If you and your employee are up for it, have a frank conversation to see if you’d like to give it one more shot.

If you both want to keep working together, consider creating standard templates that remove the need for critical thought or judgment.  Just make a prescribed process for your employee to follow.  Not an ideal or efficient solution, but it can help buy you both some time to think about next steps.

Conversation #5: Self-reflection
This is just a conversation with yourself.  Is this really where you want to be with this situation?  Is this fair to you to have a poor performer that you’re dragging along?  Is it fair to your employee to have to continue struggling?

Not every company has a culture that understands the importance of setting poor performers free, but many experts recommend it.  If it’s possible, give it consideration.

And if it’s not possible where you are, ask yourself if it’s the right company for you.  It’s ok to say no, but to stay for a while.  No rush.  But it’s important to be honest with yourself.  At the foundation of all of this,

that’s the important piece: being honest about what you did, what you can do, and how you feel about it.

© 2016 Jessica Walter, MS, APR

All content provided here is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organization with which the author is involved. Although the author makes an extensive effort to provide a complete representation of facts, there may additional helpful information provided by other sources. Whenever researching your own situation or devising a strategy, it is recommended to gather information from many sources. The author sincerely hopes that you find this information helpful and urges you to be inspired, to inspire others, and to be gentle with yourself as you continue on your path.

About the Author

Jessica Walter is a Communications Strategist with a passion for inspiring companies to live into their full potential.  She’s found that the essential equation for long-term success includes Marketing, Culture, and Leader Development.

Jessica has been a marketing executive for a regional bank, a communications director for a health system, a public affairs officer for a Dept. of Defense command, and the assignment editor for a TV newsroom.

She holds a master’s degree in Leadership & Business Ethics from Duquesne University, a bachelor’s in Mass Communication from Towson University, and the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the Universal Accreditation Board. She is also a Certified Lean Systems Leader.

You can reach her at Jessica.walter.apr@gmail.com.

Published by Jessica Walter, MS, APR

Speaker, Consultant, and Certified Leadership Coach

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