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How to Lift Someone Who Falls Down on the Job

In a discussion about how to build high-performance teams, Transformational Energy Leadership podcast host Dr. Matthew Woolsey asked me a tough question: “What can leaders do when someone is really just falling down on the job?”

I suggested that the first thing was that the leader should not give up. It’s true that by the time someone gets to the point of asking that question, the implication is that there’s no easy fix, problems have been present for a while, and the leader hasn’t got a recovery plan. But there are several approaches to rectifying the situation.

Check Your Assumptions

When an employee just doesn’t seem to be pulling their weight no matter what you’ve tried, start by considering whether you’ve got the right person in the right role. Do they actually have the appropriate functional skills and capabilities to do the job you need them to do? Also verify that they have sound collaborative and relationship behaviors, because people who aren’t comfortable in today’s shifting team environments often become frustrated and don’t participate as well as they could.

Next, take pains to communicate your purpose and goals, so you can ensure that the employee is on the same page with coworkers about what needs to be done. If the employee and their colleague have different perceptions about how to manage the project they share, it can be hard for them to collaborate well. After all, a good drill pointed in the wrong direction can make a beautiful hole where you don’t need one.

Go over the current context and expectations with the employee, describing the job’s requirements and explaining the impacts on colleagues, customers, and the organization itself when those requirements are not met. Once you’re fairly confident they understand, it’s time to get curious with them, asking what they need to be able to accomplish the things you’ve asked for and finding out how best to support them.

Learn About Their Point of View

Use direct, leading questions to discover how things are working from the employee’s perspective. Hopefully, you’ve already established some trust with them, so they’ll feel comfortable telling you what’s on their mind. To help strengthen the relationship, be clear that you believe their intentions are good and that they have legitimate reasons for whatever they’re doing or not doing.

And remain open to hearing their responses, no matter how peculiar or pointless they may seem to you. They may tell you they would like more skill training, time, or resources, or that they need something oddly specific. For instance, it could turn out that they don’t feel confident about making presentations, or even that the office environment is so cold they’re literally not comfortable sitting at their desk.

People often think things like these are too small to bring up and they’ll just have to live with them, but little things can hamper or undercut performance in big ways. And even if the employee’s complaints or requests seem small to you, if it’s important to them, it can make the difference between poor and good — or even great — performance.

Extend Yourself to Bridge the Gap

As a leader, you may need to invest more in your employee’s situation to get it to work, even if you feel their position is silly or not worth your time. Consider the alternatives. If the employee has the capability necessary to make a go of it, wouldn’t you rather give them a nudge or offer a helping hand and ensure their success, rather than letting them languish and eventually fail? If they don’t succeed, not only will you have to replace them, but the team will be negatively affected.

It’s very disruptive to have a failure, so if you have reasonable hope of success, it usually makes sense to go a bit beyond what you feel comfortable about or have time to do. So even if you’re thinking, “Oh, I shouldn’t have to do that,” get in touch with Building Engineering and ask about adjusting the temperature. Or, if the employee lacks confidence, make an offer: “Let’s role-play that presentation together,” or “I’d be happy to review your drafts and go to the meeting with you if you’d like some extra support.”

When you’re trying to salvage an employee who hasn’t been doing well, think deeply about whether you truly believe they can do better. If the possibility is there, review your expectations with them, learn what they need to improve, and extend yourself to help them make it. You can always wean them off the extra support later, once you’ve seen they really can do it.

Onward and upward —


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