We’ve all been there. An otherwise well-performing employee is in a slump. They may be missing deadlines that they used to hit or perhaps they are just not performing as well as before.
For some managers, it may be tough to have a conversation with otherwise well-performing employees. It might feel weird to bring an employee into the office to talk about what’s ailing them at work when that conversation may have never happened before.
And maybe the employee doesn’t want to talk about it but, as is often the case in these situations, the manager is the one pushing back. They don’t want to make it seem like a big deal or they believe the funk is temporary.
Either one of them may be true, but is ignoring it the best way of dealing with it? I don’t think so.
How did I deal with it?
I had an employee we’ll call Joe who left our company after about a year of doing very well, but at the end he had about three months of steadily declining performance. When we first noticed him performing poorly, we figured it was a blip on the radar. He had too many good weeks in the past to worry about it.
Of course, when that was happening to Joe, weeks turned into months. I implored the manager to speak with him about it but he was certain it was just temporary. And besides, he was still above the average for his department and it was a slow time of year.
Finally, I told the manager that I wanted to have a brief chat with him and I pulled him over to a conference room by his desk. I asked him what was up and he told me he wasn’t happy with how work had shifted. He got pulled into multiple meetings and tasks that had nothing to do with how he was rated on productivity.
I nodded and we agreed to talk about it next week after I had talked to the manager. Several days later, he turned in his notice. He felt bad about the situation (especially after I talked to him) but he had been looking for a month and he decided to move on. From his point of view, who knows how long it would take for the company to fix the issue?
Since then, I’ve taken a five pronged approach to dealing with issues when employee performance dips:
1. Recognize the Issue
This is the biggest hurdle to get over. Approach the employee privately and ask if they see any issues with their work as of late. This will also gauge their level of recognition of the issue. When I’ve approached employees about it, sometimes it is like a weight is being lifted off their shoulders and sometimes they take it personally.
You should be prepared for either reaction. If they feel defensive about it, talk about some recent lapses and compliment their previous work. This isn’t a conversation you’re having with a problem employee so don’t approach it like that. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
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2. Getting to the root cause of the Issue
Sometimes situations change that we can’t control. Maybe a parent has moved into elder care, or a situation with a child or spouse has popped up recently. Even our best performers have things happen in their life that distract them. But you should figure out if it is something within your span of control.
For example, if a recent work reorganization has left the person with changed duties or perhaps a different manager, there are ways of addressing that. In any case, it is worth figuring out if it is something work related or something outside of work that is impacting their performance.
3. Empathizing with the employee
I had an employee once who was (very privately) going through a horrible personal situation. Nobody at work knew about it except for the drop in work productivity. We talked about resources we could offer through an EAP, flexibility and referrals if they needed any assistance. And even if the situation isn’t as serious, it is still important to be empathetic to whatever is impacting their performance. Remember, the only reason you noticed is because their performance went from good to less than stellar.
4. Brainstorming solutions
For issues where the funk is due to a situation at work, it is time to think about solutions. I remember a time when we went through a reorganization and we had to put employees in a less than ideal place in the org chart. There was no getting around it, but being able to be transparent about the why and how and maybe some ways of coping with the situation (which was temporary in our case), is perfectly appropriate.
For some employees where the situation is out of your hands, time may be the only solution. And you should be as generous as you can since employees often come back from that much more loyal than before.
5. Following up
Don’t be obnoxious about it, but following up is absolutely necessary. Don’t assume the problem is solved simply because performance improves. Communicating with the employee (without being overbearing) is the only way to ensure things are on track or if additional steps need to be taken.
This didn’t help me with Joe, but it did help me with countless other issues that have popped up when a good performer takes a temporary dip in productivity.