As a leadership development expert, one of the things I find that managers struggle with the most is when direct reports don’t meet their performance expectations. Most managers are in their roles because they are high performers with high standards. They’ve likely never been coached for low performance or inefficiency, so that makes it doubly difficult when they encounter the situation in their direct reports. Fortunately, there are several things you can do when your employee is struggling.
Before taking any action, I recommend conducting a performance diagnostic. All too often, managers assume they know the reason for the inefficiency and rush to correct the problem before even confirming that that is the issue. For example, managers will often assume any performance problem is caused by a lack of training, and will provide additional training in order to correct the problem. This is a mistake, because not knowing how to perform a task is only one possible reason for poor performance.
Most managers use labels instead of behaviors to describe performance and this is often the crux of the problem. If you were to ask employees if they’re efficient, or motivated, most will tell you yes, because most people assume they are performing better than they actually are! Instead of using words like efficient, be specific about what you want. For example, “Please make sure you go through the whole inbox before going to the file room so you only have to make one trip” is more effective than “Can you please file more efficiently?”
In applied behavioral science terminology, task clarification refers to the process of explaining what needs to be done as well as how to do it. If you look at the job descriptions in most organizations, we do a pretty good job of telling people what, but not so good at how. To get top notch performance and efficiency, managers need to explain what and how. Great leaders will also throw in why, to keep people inspired.
I tell all my clients that more feedback is best. Employees assume no news is good news, so if you’re not giving them feedback about their lack of efficiency, they won’t know they need to improve. Giving frequent, objective feedback alone can improve performance by up to 15%!
Catch them doing something right, and reward them. How to properly reward employees is a science in and of itself, but suffice it to say a good manager is like a social vending machine. Good vending machines are consistent, they give you what you’ve asked for, they don’t give you what you didn’t ask for, and they only give up the goods if you’ve done your part. That’s how you as a manager should deliver your positive reinforcement.
If employees don’t know what you expect then you can’t blame them for not delivering it. In addition to explaining how to do something, you should also explain what you expect in terms of output. If you think it’s appropriate for an employee to get through 50 work tickets a day, for example, then for goodness sakes tell them this! If someone’s new it’s okay if they have mini-goals to shape their performance while they’re learning. Just make sure they understand this so they don’t feel you’re always asking for more.
If you want your employee to be more efficient, sometimes you need to coach them on how to spend their time or the company’s money. It’s a mistake to assume your employees see things the way you do. Some managers are so concerned about being perceived as the dreaded micro-manager that they neglect to provide much-needed guidance on priorities, and then seethe silently (or not so silently) when the employee chooses incorrectly.
Don’t assume your employee understands the big picture. A lot of inefficiency and waste can be chalked up to simply not knowing what’s at stake. If you explain to your line manager, for example, how having the highest paid employee sweep the floors while three minimum wage people learn a new skill inflates labor unnecessarily, they will be in a better position to manage tasks the next time. Just barking that overtime is too high will not solve the problem.
Sometimes you need to solve a problem before it even starts, and in the case of inefficient employees this is in the interview process. Make sure to be as clear as possible during the interview about the work quality and quantity expectations, and ask detailed behavioral questions to determine employees’ previous capacity. It’s essential to paint an accurate picture of the job, and to select the people who have done similar work in the past. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, after all.
If all else fails, or as a safeguard, you can always make the most efficient processes the required processes. Most candidates I interview these days prefer some latitude regarding how they accomplish their job, but they also agree that it makes sense to learn established best practices before innovating. Consider documenting the most efficient way to perform the job and making that your standard operating procedures.
Like most problems, an inefficient employee won’t improve if you just ignore the situation. You don’t have the time or energy to let poor performance linger, so put on your big girl pants and deal with it head on. If your employee is worth keeping, they’ll thank you for your input.
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today's Leadership Solutions; Seattle-based consulting firm dedicated to providing business owners peace of mind and job fulfillment by ensuring their management teams are equipped to run their businesses successfully. A certified executive coach, organizational development expert, and HR Professional, Carrie consults with small to medium-sized businesses on management, leadership, and recruiting solutions in addition to providing career coaching to managers and executives in transition.