You know times are tough and everyone is dealing with a lot. You get it. You’re sympathetic, empathetic and, generally, you try not to be a jerk. But, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for getting work done, satisfying clients and meeting business objectives. You have deliverables, deadlines, people and projects to manage - yes, there’s a pandemic happening but the world keeps turning.
So, what do you do when one of your employees isn’t pulling their weight? How can you hold people accountable and give feedback without inadvertently making things worse? Adapted from this Bloomberg Business Week article, these considerations may help you think through your approach, find a solution that works and gets the results you need.
- Have you defined and communicated clear goals and agreed on how success will be measured?
Ask yourself, is there any chance your team member doesn’t actually know the expectations? This is more plausible than you might think. A lot of change is happening, priorities fluctuate from week-to-week and communication isn’t what it was. They might honestly be out of the loop, confused about timelines or have lost sight of how their work fits into the big picture. Start here and make sure the goals are clear, visible and everyone knows what success looks like.
- What kind of feedback have you given before now?
Really think about it. You may have been cutting them some slack recently, or you’re being pulled in a dozen directions yourself and haven’t been checking in regularly. Maybe you missed some early warning signs and didn’t intervene before some real problems started. Now that you have to act, you can take responsibility for your part and plan to do better.
- Is this an ongoing issue, or are the performance problems new?
If this is a sudden lapse, it’s highly likely that external factors are impacting your team member; they might be struggling to home school, maybe someone they know is ill, perhaps they are impacted by the ongoing protests around racial justice. These are serious challenges: it may be unreasonable to expect performance to remain the same as before. Crucially, it also means this challenge is likely temporary, and, with support, they’ll soon be back to delivering at their full potential. If you don’t know, find out. As supportive, open-ended questions about what may have changed recently and what they need from you to help them success before you bring up your concerns.
- Have you considered ways to reduce the pressure or increase support?
Consider if there is anything you can do to relieve the pressure. The options you have in your toolkit may include redistributing work, extending deadlines, reevaluating what’s urgent and important, reminding them of Employee Assistance Program benefits - or just offering a space to vent and/or a bit of encouragement.
- Have you checked your own biases?
Research has shown that when we are stressed - and who isn’t when looking at a performance problem—our biases are more likely to impact what we do. It’s harder to think clearly when under pressure, so our cognitive shortcuts (i.e. biases) take over. Make sure you aren’t judging this person differently than anyone else on your team.
- Have you described the problems in objective terms?
List the facts as you have observed them, and the specific impact on the work and other people. Explain this in neutral, non-judgmental terms and give them time to respond before you move on to solutions and next steps.
- Have you arranged a phone call to discuss the issue?
Although videoconferencing has become the default, a regular phone call may be more comfortable and psychologically safe. A call lets you focus on words and tone of voice. It also enables your team member to find more privacy if they need it.