007 – Why Your Employees Are Underperforming (Part 1 of 3)
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One of the most crucial manager skills you will develop is the ability to effectively manage performance. It’s crucial because if incorrectly managed, or incorrectly diagnosed, poor performance is repeated… and that means more frustration for you as the manager and potentially negative attrition.
That makes sense, right? If you have a consistent poor performer on your team, eventually that person will be terminated; and if not fired, they will probably quit because who enjoys failing?
In this episode, you will learn the 3 reasons why employees underperform and we are going to break the first one down in detail.
Click to Tweet: #Leadership is about helping people #achieve things that they may not have been able to achieve with you.
Key Points From Today’s Episode:
- If you didn’t know… now you know! Enter your name here for a chance to win a 10-year subscription to Harvard Business Review!
- There are only 3 reasons why employees underperform
- They Don’t Know
- They Aren’t Capable
- They Don’t Care
- Empower your employees to achieve higher performance: It’s about providing clear direction the first-time, avoiding ambiguity and misunderstanding, so that your employees can walk out of your office 100% confident that they know what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.
A Story About Underperforming Employees:
To start off, let me tell you a story about a couple employees who I’ve managed. We’ll call one of the employees Judith (Mostly because I don’t think I’ve worked with a Judith… and if you’re name is Judith and we worked together at some point… Sorry!). And we will call the other employee Elroy (because I just thought about the jetsons for some reason… and if you don’t know who the jetsons are… i’m sad for you… and you should stop this episode and google it!)
To the story.
So at the time, Judith had been working as a Recruiter on my team for about 3 months.. She was excited about her new role, excited about the opportunity at our company, and eager to help that next potential candidate find a great job!
Now often times in our business, we’d have a couple of Recruiters work on the same project, especially if there were multiple openings with one of our clients.
And before we would begin our search, I would call a meeting with my team and together we would create a game plan. On this particular day, I called both Judith and Elroy into my office to discuss a project manager position one of our clients was looking to fill.
But let me tell you a little bit about Elroy. Elroy had worked with me for well over a year now and was seeing reasonable success. He was actually my go-to partner when a new client or new opportunity came in, so I had a lot of faith in his capabilities.
Back to our team meeting. As we always did, we reviewed the job description, company details, time line, and went back and forth with some Q&A. We also called the client to verify some information that we weren’t quite clear on. We all took notes, built a plan and I closed the meeting by asking if both Elroy and Judith were ready to go.
They both said yes and left my office excited to start calling some great candidates.
Here’s the part of the story that really kills me. Our deadline to submit a candidate was 3 days after our team meeting, and those 3 days were absolutely exhausting! It felt like I was at Judith’s desk every 2 hours to correct something she was doing, give her new direction, or coach her on some things that really should have been basics from her onboarding and initial training – training that I remember doing with her!
Go figure – when the deadline came, Judith didn’t have a candidate, and to add insult to injury, she wasn’t close and had lost all confidence. Let me tell you something here. In the recruiting business, confidence is everything. Confidence is what helps you pick up the phone… it’s what pushes you to make that extra call or send that extra email, and it’s what helps you build relationships with potential candidates and clients.
Judith was crushed, but I’d have to worry about that later.
Elroy on the other hand was a breeze to manage those 3 days. He gave me timely updates and had a couple candidates who he was considering.
The only problem was that when the deadline came, he wasn’t actually ready. He had a great candidate, but hadn’t received an updated resume or confirmation that the candidate was even interested in the job. In our recruiting world, as you can imagine… those things are critical!
So over the next 4 hours, we scrambled to get everything ready. I helped put the resume together and we both hopped on the phone back and forth with the candidate, the candidate’s references and the client to make sure we hit our deadline.
…and we did hit our deadline… but there were casualties.
Again, we had Judith who was sitting at one desk, defeated. But now we had Elroy at another desk, questioning my trust in him and questioning his ability to deliver on my expectations… but wait a minute – that’s the key – what were my expectations?
You see, this is often the point where a manager gets really frustrated with the performance of his or her team. Often times the response is to scold the underperforming employees or at a minimum jot down some mental notes of distrust that will come back up on the next project.
Now you have distraught employees and a distraught manager, which is a recipe for disaster.
In keeping with our story, what do you think could happen on the next project? Maybe some lack of motivation… fear of failure, hesitation with setting a deadline, lack of confidence in front of a customer, repeated poor performance… potentially all of the above.
So as the manager, where do you think I went wrong? Where do you think the employees went wrong?
In order to answer that question, we need to make this cut and dry.
Regardless of the outcome and regardless of the difficulty of the project, let’s agree that in this story, both Judith and Elroy underperformed. It might be tempting to say that Elroy was successful because he still identified a candidate, but at the end of the day, his performance didn’t meet the standards because he wasn’t ready at the deadline.
You could also argue that it’s not fair to expect an employee with only 3 months of experience, like Judith, to successfully deliver on this project. However, if we make this cut and dry, her job as a Recruiter is to recruit… and she didn’t accomplish the task.
Now I’m not saying that these employees should be fired or disciplined. I’m just saying that they underperformed.
So since we have established that the employees underperformed, it’s time to look at WHY they underperformed.
And let me tell you, it doesn’t matter what industry or profession you are in. You know what under performance looks like on your team and regardless of how different it might be in your world, what I am about to tell you will still ring true.
There are only 3 reasons why employees underperform.
- They don’t know
- They aren’t capable OR
- They don’t care
On today’s show, we are only going to unpack 1 of these reasons… can you guess which one?
Let’s diagnose Judith’s performance first. Judith was a relatively new employee and I already mentioned how excited she was for the opportunity, so I think we can rule out reason #3, because she certainly cares. So now we are left with 2 options. Judith either didn’t know what to do (or how to do it) or she isn’t capable of performing the job.
Let me provide some context here and tell you that this wasn’t a repeat poor performance from her, and I think it would be too early to suggest she isn’t capable of performing in the role.
That leaves us with one reason for the lack of performance. She didn’t know. She didn’t know what to do or she didn’t know how to do it.
Now let’s look at Elroy’s performance. Elroy had already proven himself capable of performing all of the required skills in his role, so it couldn’t be a lack of capabilities… and he did still deliver what was required of him in this situation.
I could also tell by both his work ethic during the final stages of the project and his concerned response afterward that he cared… he cared a lot.
Which again leaves us with one reason for the lack of performance. He didn’t know.
We’re in a bit of an interesting situation though aren’t we.
I admitted that I was the person who trained Judith, so why didn’t she know what to do? I also mentioned that Elroy was a proven performer and a trustworthy employee, so how is it possible that he didn’t know what to do?
Well, in Elroy’s case, he knew what to do and how to do it, but he didn’t know when to do it. Sure he had performed well in the past, but he faced some new challenges this time around and didn’t find a candidate as quickly as he wanted to… and this exposed that he wasn’t always working efficiently.
And you will understand Judith’s challenge in just a moment.
But listen closely here. Whenever you identify that the reason for an underperforming employee is because he or she doesn’t know… doesn’t know what to do or how to do it or when to do it… well you have to look at the person responsible for communicating what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
That was my job as the manager… and the trainer.
Now, I won’t shy away from saying this. I was a very good recruiter and every time I had a team meeting to discuss a new position for one of my clients… well we made a great plan.
What I did tend to shy away from though was admitting that I didn’t communicate clearly. Or maybe more importantly, I didn’t ensure that my instructions and expectations were received and understood.
You see, the only expectation that both Judith and Elroy thought about when they left my office was… go find a candidate.
Elroy understood everything I communicated and he knew how to perform the different steps of our recruiting process. In this case though, I assumed he knew when to perform each step and I assumed he knew how to manage his time… I also assumed that he knew when to ask for help.
So I didn’t discuss this in our team meeting.
Back to Judith.
Have you ever listened to someone explain something to you and after the first point, you just kinda… well get lost? That’s what happened to Judith. As a new employee, she had learned so much in the last 3 months and for us to just steamroll through the recruiting plan, she couldn’t grasp everything. She was overwhelmed.
Let’s pause for a moment.
Right now, you could be thinking that as the Manager, the problem was that I didn’t communicate clearly… and you are partly right. Obviously there was additional communication required for Elroy to know how I expected him to manage and prioritize his time and activities over the next few days.
However, can you imagine how that conversation would have gone?
Hey Elroy, I know you know what you are doing, but make sure you do this, then this, then this, and if this happens, do this, and so on and so forth.
This would either be information overload, unnecessary micromanagement, or condescending speech… and Elroy would have walked out of my office wondering if I had any confidence in him whatsoever.
Here’s the big mistake I made as the manager that day.
I didn’t verify.
What I said at the end of the meeting was, “Are you ready?” – a close ended question where a confident recruiter doesn’t want to admit he might not be ready… or doesn’t know he might not be ready – and where a new employee doesn’t want to appear like she isn’t ready for something she has been eagerly waiting for!
Why would I expect them to say anything other than “Yes”, I’m ready?
What I should have said is this:
“Alright Elroy, before we wrap up, why don’t you walk us through your plan. I think it will be beneficial for Judith to hear and it will help me ensure that I didn’t miss anything.”
Boom! Now Elroy feels valued, appreciated and empowered because I asked him to help Judith. But this is also an open ended question where I’ll be able to listen and catch some potential traps he may face.
I also established that any feedback that comes from me during his explanation will likely be because I missed explaining it, not because I think he is stupid or not good enough.
This verification question creates an additional walk-through of the plan to help Judith and an opportunity for me to continue coaching Elroy and hopefully identify and prevent some of the challenges he would face in the coming days.
The second thing I should have done is allowed Elroy to leave and get started, and then spend a few more minutes with Judith to ask her some open ended questions about each of the tasks ahead of her.
This process, this type of questioning… As I mentioned, it’s called verification. It’s not a lack of trust, but it’s a necessary step to help you trust. When you ask open ended questions to test your employees to see how much information was received and retained, you are verifying that you have communicated effectively and completely.
It also allows you to feel confident when they leave your office or leave your conversation that they can execute and deliver… which minimized the number of times you have to check in during a project and increases your employee’s confidence.
And this verification should continue every day. When I would check in with Elroy and Judith, I should have been asking open ended questions, like – tell me what you’ve done so far… versus, “how’s it going?” or “are you good?” or “going to hit that deadline?”
I said this at the beginning and I’ll say it again now. The basic concept for today’s episode is to empower your employees to achieve higher performance, without having to constantly check-in on them. It’s about providing clear direction the first-time, avoiding ambiguity and misunderstanding, so that your employees can walk out of your office 100% confident that they know what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.
And when you do this, your employee’s performance… and your own, will improve.
Well, we’ve just unpacked the first reason why employees underperform, which is, because they don’t know. But if you haven’t already subscribed to this podcast, make sure to do so in iTunes so that you don’t miss what’s next.
On Wednesday this week, you’ll hear an interview with Thomas Rock Lindsay, host of the SmallBiz Brainiac podcast and the CEO of Alternative Market Solutions (which is soon to be renamed Humanly HR). On Friday, I’m chatting with Dov Baron, Founder of Full Monty Leadership, and then next Monday, I’ll be back to talk about the second reason employees underperform… which is because they aren’t capable of performing… which means we are going to talk about some tough decisions.