010 – Incompetence: Why Your Employees Are Underperforming (Part 2 of 3)
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There are only 3 reasons why employees underperform. Through this episode, we are discussing the second reason for poor performance. Incompetence. Sometimes, employees will consistently underperform because they are not actually capable of performing. It can be a difficult realization, but it’s critical that this one gets diagnosed and addressed properly.
Today you will learn 3 steps that you should take in order to address and manage an incompetent or incapable employee on your team… and you might be surprised with the first step.
Click to Tweet: #Leadership is about helping people #achieve things that they may not have been able to achieve without you.
Key Points From Today’s Episode:
- There are 3 Steps to take when addressing an employee who is incapable of performing his or her job
- Review Performance Standards
- Make a Quick Decision
- Review Your Hiring Process
- Be careful of assumptions. Is your employee really incapable, or is the more coaching to be done?
- The quick decision. Coach the employee or fire the employee. (9 times out of 10… coach)
Do You Have an Incompetent Employee?
If you listened to last Monday’s episode, you will remember that we started to talk about the 3 reasons why employees underperform. Specifically, we dove into the first reason for underperformance, which is because your employees don’t know what to do, how to do it, or when to do it.
Today’s episode is going to be a little more complicated because of all the what if’s that come into play. So before we get too far down the rabbit hole, let me say this: Every situation is going to be a little different, because we are talking about leading people, and often leading people involves following your gut… it’s not always black and white… and we’ll talk a little bit about that today.
A quick review
Last week, you heard about the project challenges I faced leading two of my employees, Judith and Elroy. The solution to that particular challenge (and really any challenge where you find that an employee doesn’t perform because they didn’t actually know what to do, how to do it, or when to do it) is to verify. To verify that you have communicated your instructions and expectations clearly and verify that your employee has retained and understood that message.
And the best way to do that is to have your employee repeat their plan and your expectations back to you.
But, what do you do if you verify, the message is clear and your employee can repeat the plan back to you… but then he or she doesn’t actually execute? (Be careful here, simply not executing a plan could still mean they don’t know how or when to do something. I’m not talking about that and I’m not talking about someone who is still learning, still trying some new things and asking for guidance and requiring tweaks, adjustments and encouragement.)
I’m talking about the situation where the instructions are clear but your employee just doesn’t do it. Where he or she just doesn’t perform – doesn’t meet standards. I’m talking about the times where it’s not a matter of training and direction, but a matter of capabilities and competence.
Let me give you an example: let’s say that you work in accounting. I’m not an accountant, however I’m going to go out on a limb here say that if you want to build a successful career within the accounting and finance world, you had better be good with numbers. Specifically, you better be good at math and have a high attention to detail.
I say this because putting the wrong number in the wrong box (or the wrong number in any box for that matter), or setting up that formula incorrectly, or simply not being able to see someone’s financial situation from the balance sheet in front of you is a big problem.
So the question here is, what do you do, if you work in accounting, and you provide clear instructions to an employee… you verify that he or she understands what to do, how to do it, and when to do it… but you review their work and it is consistently chalked full of errors and mistakes. Oh, and the work that is produced is often incomplete or submitted behind schedule.
We’re talking about competency now. Sure there could be something else going on personally or professionally when it comes to motivation, but we will be discussing that challenge next week.
So to summarize, we have an employee who wants to perform, understands what good performance looks like, but consistently underperforms.
And I’ve used that word again… Consistently. This is key.
Let me give you the answer, and then I’ll unpack it.
When you are dealing with an underperformer who is not capable of meeting your performance standards, you must follow these 3 steps:
- You need to review your performance standards
- You need to make a quick decision
- You need to review your hiring process
Step 1: You need to review your performance standards.
Now don’t immediately bark at me and tell me that standards are standards or that you have high expectations, “but that’s what makes my team great!”
This isn’t personal.
What I’d suggest you do is review your performance standards to ensure that you are measuring your employee against the minimum expectations of the job. You want to ensure that your expectations are realistic before you start to jump to conclusions about your employee’s fit on your team.
There are two perspectives that I want you to consider here. First off, start with your customer in mind. When you look at the job description (and I don’t mean the posting on your web site), look at the actual function of the employee’s role and the impact on customer satisfaction. How aligned are your minimum expectations? How aligned is your employee’s performance?
There will always be areas for improvement, but sometimes poor performance is worth coaching up because the coaching process does not hinder your ability to serve your customers and it does not negatively impact the rest of your team’s ability to serve your customers.
I feel like I should say this though so that there isn’t any misunderstanding. I’m not trying to suggest that you are an overly critical manager. What I am actually doing is asking you to verify (there’s that word again) that the employee is truly underperforming.
The second perspective to consider when reviewing your performance standards is your boss’s perspective. I’ll tell you this from personal experience. When you notice a performance issue the first time, that’s the best time to inform your supervisor.
You may be tempted to avoid that conversation because you don’t want your boss to see weakness on your team, but you can take this as a proactive opportunity now or suffer the reactive consequences later.
What you want to do is to inform your boss about something you are noticing with your employee AND how you are addressing it. That doesn’t show weakness as a team, but strength as a leader. It’s through that conversation that you will want to explain how you are measuring the performance, to ensure that both you and your supervisor see the same thing so that you can be supported you as you try to coach your employee to improve performance.
So to recap here, when you see a performance issue from one of your employees that’s related to his or her capabilities, you want to first review your performance standards to ensure the employee is actually underperforming (and therefore impacting your ability or your team’s ability to serve your customers). Then you want to communicate with your supervisor what you see and what you are doing to coach your employee to better performance.
Let’s move to the second step.
Step 2: You need to make a quick decision.
This doesn’t always mean termination, but this always means quick. One of the biggest challenges that managers face is having to have a difficult conversation. Although today we won’t have time to discuss how to have a difficult conversation, I think we can all agree that these types of “constructive” conversations are uncomfortable and scary. Maybe you can relate to one of these common thoughts.
- What if they get upset?
- What if they cry?
- What will they think about me?
- What will they tell their colleagues?
- What if I’m wrong?
- What will this do to our relationship?
- What if they argue?
I’ve experienced all of these thoughts, and many of them at the same time.
But here is the reality check: if you don’t address an issue, it won’t get better. In fact, it will ALWAYS get worse. First of all, if poor behavior isn’t corrected, it will be repeated. Second of all, if poor behavior increases, the conversation goes from corrective to disciplinary… and we know what follows disciplinary actions. Resignation or Termination.
Again, we will have to cover the topic of ‘how to have a difficult conversation’ on another episode. But for now, it’s about making a quick decision.
When you have an employee who is consistently underperforming, step 2 requires you to make a quick decision. A decision to coach or to terminate. A or B. Black or White. Improved performance or fired.
Now, maybe you think it isn’t that clear, but it is clear… but it’s not simple. That’s because each decision has implications. If you choose to coach your employee because you believe that he or she can become capable, you will need to work with your supervisor or human resources team to outline exactly what that looks like, how much time it will take, how you do it, when you measure, etc.
Conversely, if your decision is to terminate the employee… again, you will need to work with your supervisor or human resources team to outline what that looks like as well, and that’s everything from documentation to formal Performance Improvement Plans or PIPs.
And let me be clear here: I recognize that I’ve probably just opened the door to four or five different discussions, that are all extremely important. Discussions such as, how do you know if the coaching investment is worth the effort, or what should have happened before you even get to a point of having to make this decision.
So let me just say one more thing, and then we’ll move on.
I’ve mentioned a few times already that we are talking about consistent underperformance. I also mentioned that you should be addressing a performance issue the first time you see it (and connect with your own boss). 9 times out of 10, your quick decision should be to coach. …and go figure, what are you coaching on? What to do, how to do it, and when to do it… interesting – You see, Your job as a leader is to lead, and leadership involves helping people achieve things that they may not have been able to achieve without you (TWEET THIS). That includes performance. So when we look at the 3 steps to take when addressing a capabilities or competency issue, step 2: make a quick decision, should almost always involve a coaching plan.
And I lied… I said I’d say just one more thing, but I’ve got another. I’ve seen this so many times, and I’ve experienced it myself, so I know it’s real… and, to be honest, this mostly happens when we don’t have those difficult conversations.
Here is what happens: When an employee is performing poorly, instead of diagnosing WHY they are performing poorly, we assume that they simply aren’t good enough. We assume that they are incapable and we look for opportunities to make a personnel change (or we just whine and complain about it)
But think about the word I’ve been using this whole time: Incapable. That means NOT ABLE TO perform. That means beyond their abilities, as in won’t happen (or won’t happen for a long time).
That’s why this three part series on diagnosing employee performance issues is so important, and that’s why Step 1 that we talked about (review your performance standards) is so important.
Don’t make assumptions that can significantly limit someone’s career.
When you identify an issue with your employee’s capabilities, review your standards and connect with your boss, then make a quick decision, a quick decision to have a tough conversation and start coaching… or a quick decision (if you have been trying to coach and you have already involved your boss in the improvement plan) to terminate.
Once you have taken care of the urgent issue, your employee’s performance, it’s time for step 3.
And I don’t think we need to spend much time talking about this step. It’s so obvious. Anytime you have issues with an employee’s ability to perform the necessary job functions, you need to investigate how the employee landed on your team, to begin with.
That’s step 3 – review your hiring process.
Again, this is obvious and it makes sense. If someone was hired or promoted onto your team without the skills, aptitude or competence to actually perform the job… something went wrong along the way.
Here’s my warning: don’t just say, well, they must have fooled me in the interview. That’s an easy answer with no accountability, but it’s tempting to do because it will save you an hour… until it happens again.
The process is really easy and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Schedule a short meeting with your boss and anyone else involved in the hiring process to conduct a specific review of your recruiting and selection process.
I say specific because I’m not talking about overhauling your entire program. I’m talking about identifying the specific competency issue and then looking at your interview questions and your interview notes to see if that competency or skill was addressed. If it was addressed, how was it addressed? How was the question asked? How was the competency tested? How did you measure or assess the answers and results?
That meeting should be 15 minutes max and you should be able to walk away knowing what you could do differently next time so that you can ensure that the right people are hired or promoted into the right spots.
Can’t find something in your hiring process to look at?
Move to your training and onboarding process, but remember – be specific. Unless you hired or promoted a total dud who fails repeatedly in all aspects of the business, you don’t need to overhaul your program… you just need to find out what happened… because remember, as frustrating as this process may be for you – well, it sucks a whole lot worse to be the failing employee on the other side. Hiring or promoting the wrong person sets that person up for failure.
When you are managing an employee who is consistently underperforming, follow those three steps:
- Review your performance standards
- Make a quick decision
- Review your hiring process
But what if…
Fill in the blank. This is one of those topics that is flooded with seemingly one-off situations.
So tell me about them. Click here and you can send me an email (Put the topic as “What If”). I’ll take a look and see if there is anything I can do to help. If you are facing a particular challenge as a manager… there is probably someone else in the same shoes, so let me know and I might even write about it here on YourBestManager.com or talk about it on the podcast.