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Do You Struggle with an Employee Who Can, But Won’t?

What if you’ve got a functionally competent employee whose performance is just not up to snuff? Perhaps most areas of her work are fine, and a few are outstanding, one or two crucial aspects are definitely insufficient. Gentle requests haven’t helped, nor has “sending signals;” not even peer pressure has made a dent. In fact, the employee seems downright resistant to doing certain things the way you’ve specified them, and you suspect that it’s not because she can’t, it’s because she doesn’t want to.

After the First Round of Feedback

You met with the employee and explained which behaviors needed to change and in what ways. The employee was defensive, but made it clear that she likes her job and the company and she wants to be successful — even though she also made it clear that she doesn’t actually agree with your assessment and thinks she’s doing her job just fine, thank you very much.

Since then, you’ve waited nervously to see how she would perform subsequently. And yes, she’s started doing a little better — not perfectly, but better. The improvement is clear — not complete, but clear. You’re actually starting to breathe again because the last thing you want is to replace her: It will be too difficult, too time-consuming, and who knows if you’ll find someone who’s more of a “complete package.”

You plan out how you’re going to praise her very specifically so she’ll know exactly which behaviors to sustain; how you’re going to encourage her so that she’ll start to feel comfortable with the change, and how you’ll emphasize that you’re looking forward to working on this together and her continued success.

The Employee’s Surprising Response

But before the meeting you’ve scheduled to give her this feedback, you run into her getting coffee in the break room. She announces, “I hope you’re happy now! I’m expecting a good evaluation at our weekly meeting!” and walks off.

You’re so shocked that you slosh your coffee a little. You can’t tell if she thinks she has completely turned things around with a single week of slightly improved performance, or if she’s daring you to stick to your guns. And you don’t know if she has yet recognized the magnitude of the changes you’ve asked her to make, or the fact that she has to sustain them over a significant period of time — like for the duration of her employment.

The Problem May Be Willfulness, Not Skillfulness

In fact, she has just proved one of your theories: that she really can do the work the way you want, but for some reason she didn’t choose to. Just as you suspected, it was an issue of will, not skill. You start adjusting your comments to tell her that you’ve noticed the difference; you always knew she was capable of delivering what the organization needed; and now you’ll need to see the consistency of her commitment to sustaining this level of performance.

And you hope that you can sustain your commitment to keep working with her.

Have you encountered this situation? What helped you see it through?

Onward and upward,

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