The department is mostly empty because everyone has gone to lunch. Your annoying co-worker is still there, though, humming loudly to the music piping through her earbuds, so you slowly cross the office floor.
This time you’ll do it, you tell yourself. Kristin is a nice enough person, but she’s been coming to work an hour late for over two weeks now. Not only is this forcing you to reschedule team meetings, but people are starting to notice. They don’t say anything, but when Kristin comes in at 10:00 a.m. and eyes turn silently toward your desk, you can tell that they’re wondering why you’re letting it happen
You come closer. Suddenly, you’re uneasy. What if she takes it personally? What if she gets angry? And didn’t she stay late to help you on many occasions when the work piled up?
Now you’ve stepped into view and Kristin can see you. She stops humming, takes out the earbuds, and turns in her seat.
“What’s up?” she asks.
You want to tell her that her lateness is affecting office morale. But when she looks at you, all resolve disappears and you say, “No, nothing. Just wanted to know if you’ve seen Joe.”
She says that he’s likely at lunch still. You thank her and go to your desk, annoyed at your inability to confront her.
Statistics suggest that this situation is not unusual. In 2018, workplace wellness company Bravely revealed that 70% of employees avoid difficult conversations with their managers, co-workers, and reports. The reasons range from fear of an outburst and retaliation to concerns about damaging the working relationship.
From a financial perspective (among others), silence is far from golden. Failure to address the problem can cost your office time and money. For example:
Poor work performance is a major and clearly expensive problem, but it needs to be addressed. To compound the difficulty, the definition of poor employee performance will vary between industries and companies and even from one individual to the next. The problem will be easier to tackle if you can fairly and accurately define it.
In essence, someone who is performing poorly is not pulling their weight as part of the team. For a salesperson, this could mean someone who isn’t meeting their monthly quotas, while a receptionist who disappears from their desk for extended periods of time is not fulfilling their duties properly. The behavior can also be general, such as constantly missing deadlines, coming to work late, and being rude to co-workers.
At one time, discussions about poor work performance were generally reserved for annual performance review, unless the behavior was egregious enough to warrant termination. The problem was that saving everything for the review was counterproductive. By that point, the damage was done.
Today, the recommended approach is to deal with underperformance before it has the chance to cost the company money, but company owners and managers don’t always respond appropriately. Since the issues involved can be intensely personal, such as someone’s quality of work, the more comfortable approach is to bury one’s head in the sand and hope that the situation sorts itself out naturally.
This rarely happens, however, so the problems erode workplace morale until productivity falls, along with staff morale, motivation, and retention. Below is a list of ways to improve work performance at your company without attacking the person’s dignity.
There are different ways to improve work performance, but these three are especially effective because they can be applied to a wide range of problems.
1. Team Management Tools
A well-functioning team is critical to the success of your company. Without it, few projects would be completed on time and your workforce probably wouldn’t be as effective.
To keep individual employees (as well as teams) performing efficiently, incorporate a team management tool into your management repertoire. The right program makes it easier to provide everyone with task lists, daily deliverables, and reminders that keep them on track.
My favorite program is Teamweek, a browser-based and visually appealing software that’s free for smaller teams to use. The color-coded Gantt chart timelines are easy to set up, modify, and update, but as a busy manager, you’ll appreciate the ability to “see” the big picture of how your employees are using their time. If someone is completing their tasks too slowly, you can see it at a glance and find out whether they’re overburdened, need more training, or are not working as efficiently as they could be. Some people may be genuinely unaware that their performance is not up to standard, and following a Teamweek timeline helps them to understand the situation and monitor their own progress.
This approach worked really well with one employee who was having trouble figuring out why she couldn’t meet deadlines. When our company integrated Teamweek, she could see which tasks were taking her too long to complete. She responded by seeking additional training and asking for help until her proficiency improved. Today, she’s one of our most valued team members.
2. Time Management Tools
When time management is an issue, you can improve an employee’s performance by providing access to tools that allow them to prioritize daily, weekly, and even monthly tasks. When you know what needs to be done (and in what order), efficiency improves.
There are some excellent time management tools out there, from mind-mapping software to apps that convert to-do lists into action plans. At my company, we use Teamweek to create work schedules. When an employee has fallen behind due to absenteeism or poor time management practices, I direct them to create a daily schedule of at least three tasks that they need to focus on in order to bring their performance up to par. I’ve been told that having a list to work with makes it easier to prioritize and monitor their own self-improvement.
3. Goal Setting
A surprising number of employees struggle with their work performance because they don’t know how to set goals. They know what their responsibilities are, but tend to be reactive instead of proactive.
One graphic designer on my team always came in without any sense of what he wanted to accomplish by the end of the day. He let his inbox serve as his to-do list, which made him focus on immediate issues instead of long-term strategies. As a result, he either missed deadlines or scrambled the day before a deliverable was due and produced a low-quality result.
Once again, Teamweek came to the rescue. The overview offered by the project timeline helped him to embrace long-term thinking and goal-setting. He used his Teamweek task list to keep him on track even on days when he was pulled in all directions. (Happens to all of us!)
The Institute for Employment Studies in the UK carried out a study on poor performance in the workplace. It found that the most effective approach was for managers to deal with problems early on rather than let them get worse. The researchers offered a mnemonic to illustrate good practice when handling employee performance issues: turning on the TAPS.
Offering feedback and constructive criticism can improve the way that your employees work. After all, manager response is an important part of helping someone understand where they excel and where they need to improve. Giving it can be difficult, especially when the employee seems to be trying to do their best, but when you make feedback and criticism as respectful and encouraging as possible, your words are more likely to be accepted with an open mind.
That reminds me: if you want to be heard, you have to be prepared to listen. Good listening is an essential tool when you manage employees. Perhaps the employee is experiencing temporary personal problems like an aggressive divorce, and could benefit from some time off instead of a written warning. When you practice mature listening skills, you’ll make better choices and be able to create win-win situations.
Developing a willingness to talk about performance issues is essential to the success of your company. While the prospect is rarely something you look forward to, accepting it as necessary is a first step in the right direction. When you can address misaligned expectations before they become bigger problems, you may turn a marginal employee into an outstanding one and further the company’s reputation as one that cares about its workforce.