One of the most frustrating things I’ve had to navigate as a manager is working with employees who can’t quite seem to live up to their potential. If you are relying on your employee to support your projects, their failure to contribute forces you to address the situation much more quickly. Picking up their slack is simply not sustainable. But what happens if you are the employee’s line manager, and they don’t support any of your projects? Absent the incentive to correct it, the situation could fester indefinitely.
I’ve spoken with other managers who have told me that they are willing to invest as much into the relationship as their employee. If their staff are not trying, then they as the manager are not trying either. This seemed like a reasonable approach to me—until I reflected on its pitfalls. Ignoring staff who appear to be indifferent can overlook someone who would have benefited from additional engagement. It creates a diversity and inclusion problem—you are abandoning staff that do not conform to your expectations of how someone should behave. This oversight could neglect unique talent. In my experience, when staff are not performing as you expect, it usually has to do with confidence. So, how do you get to the root of the confidence crisis? Here are some guidelines for how to get your staff to open up to you, themselves, and others:
Be candid. The worst thing you can do is ignore the situation. If you do, it will only get worse. If someone is not meeting your expectations, take the person aside and explain to them what you are seeing. Refrain from accusations. Focus on observations, backed up with examples of how that person has apparently fallen short. I also usually ask the employee if something is going on in their personal life that is affecting performance. Nine times out of ten, a 20-minute conversation uncovers the source of the issue. It’s usually a miscommunication, it’s usually something you didn’t expect, and it’s usually easy to fix. Creating the opportunity for you and your staff to connect builds trust and helps prevent additional issues from arising. Next time they are having an issue, they will learn they can come to you.
Help them pinpoint their strengths. When someone is struggling, we tend to focus on the areas in which they need to improve. You don’t want to make the mistake of softening your criticism by sandwiching it between halfhearted statements of praise. This technique can be more harmful than helpful. But, focusing exclusively on the criticism can unnecessarily damage morale. Trust me—I’m still working to perfect this one :) But, after the employee has had a chance to absorb the criticism, let them know what they are doing well. Especially for employees early in their careers, who haven’t interacted with many other staff, it may not be apparent to them what unique skills they bring to the table. In addition to offering your perspective, encourage the employee to seek feedback from others about their strengths. Work together to identify roles that showcase these strengths while also offering opportunities for growth.
Encourage risk taking. Encourage your employees to problem solve for themselves. If they come to you with a problem and not a solution, resist the temptation to fix it for them. Instead, ask them what their recommended approach would be for resolution. Weigh in on the approach, and then let them execute on it. If your employee sees that you trust them not only to make mistakes, but also to fix these mistakes themselves, they’ll stop being afraid of making them. By encouraging risk taking, you are encouraging your employees to do what you’ve been wanting them to do all along—more.
Expose them to alternatives. I once worked with an employee that everyone was convinced could do better—but wasn’t. After some probing, we identified two issues that were contributing to this situation. The first was a skewed definition of leadership. The model they’d been exposed to was bold and brazen, while their style was quiet and implacable. We talked through differential models of leadership to help them understand that there is no “one size fits all” methodology. To make it easier for staff to see a path to success, teams need to encourage cognitive diversity in leadership. The other contributor to this employee’s disappointing performance remains a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other people want them to “step up”, which implies that they are doing well in their current role. From this employee’s perspective, nothing has to change. Rather than offering vague platitudes around “stepping it up” or “being a leader”, make sure that your feedback gives specific actions that the employee can take to improve. If they don’t know what to do, they’ll do nothing.