Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I supervise an employee who appears to be struggling with her responsibilities. We upgraded our software systems several years ago, and she still does not understand how the software works. In the past two years, I have received many phone calls and e-mails from customers and coworkers regarding their concerns with her. I have addressed these problems with her and have also written up a performance improvement plan. However, she still hovers on the line between employment and unemployment. What more can I do?
Struggling with Responsibility
What a question! There are levels and flavors within this question that are intriguing (and ever so pervasive) at work and at home. Of course, the main issue here is accountability.
Over the years, as we’ve consulted with managers to work on accountability skills and with teams to build a culture of accountability, we’ve noted the following:
- In low performing cultures, people don’t hold others accountable.
- In good performing cultures, supervisors (or people with power) hold others accountable.
- In the best performing cultures, everyone can and does hold everyone else accountable.
That distinction is key for a couple of reasons. When even a few low performers are not held accountable, the standard drops for everyone. “Oh yeah,” say colleagues, “Our written standards are A, but our real standards are A minus twenty percent.” Also, performance management systems alone cannot deal with performance gaps. Systems are necessary, but not sufficient. Real-time accountability is the responsibility of every person and is done the moment it’s needed. High, clear standards and real-time accountability from everyone is the key to a healthy culture.
Your direct report has a performance gap. You have followed a process. You have talked to her and even written her up. Given what you’ve shared in your question, here are a couple of suggestions.
- Make sure the expectations are clear. Clarity is needed on the process, steps or behaviors, and on the outcomes and results.
- Don’t underestimate people’s need for training. People are excellent at masking ability problems. Does this employee need additional skill building? Are there any other barriers that are causing her to not perform? Too often, managers try to motivate employees when the real problem is an issue of ability. So make sure you’ve looked at her skills and knowledge. Make sure she can do the process is essential.
- Clarify the consequences and then follow through. One of the biggest concerns I had as I read your question is this statement: “In the past two years…” This problem has gone on for too long. People often assume that to be nice they need to work on an issue for a long time. Not so. If you’ve clarified expectations, made sure she is capable, and removed barriers, then you need to help motivate her.
- Motivate with natural consequences. After you have shared with her what her low performance has done to suppliers, customers, colleagues and to you, you need to start a discipline process. This process often includes probation, suspension without pay, and then termination. A fair and patient process gives people the clarity, the support, and the time they need to improve. If they don’t improve, they need to be let go. Avoiding the consequences is not positive for you, the company, or for your direct report. When people do not perform, when they feel stressed because they can’t do the job, it’s not helpful to them to keep that job. It is better for them to find a job that matches their abilities and their motivation. So this last step is often not only essential for the company, it is the best step for the employee. /LI>
Thank you for your question. And best wishes to all who are working to improve accountability, at work and at home.