At one point in my content strategy role, I gained a new adjacent responsibility and the team member that came with it. Initially, I was excited because I’d have an extra set of hands to help get work done. But that my enthusiasm quickly dampened.
It turns out the team member I inherited was actually a known underperformer and I was one of the last potential stops for improvement on his way out the door. I had my work cut out for me. Here’s how I turned things around.
Set and communicate clear expectations
I’m passionate about this one, having been on the wrong side of unclear expectations before. It’s also one of the easiest and most likely fixes for underperformance.
It’s easy to assume our expectations of people are clear. Especially if we’ve been doing a job for a while, we may assume expectations are a given. Or we may assume they should be obvious from assignments and feedback we’re sharing. They’re often not. For all sorts of reasons.
So assume any unspoken expectations don’t exist.
In fact, assume any potentially ambiguous or implied expectations don’t exist. Then lay out clear, measurable, highly specific expectations. Confirm your team member understands them. Have your team member repeat them back to you and explain what they mean.
At one job, my manager’s manager felt that I wasn’t meeting expectations by a wide margin. He could have elected to fire me or demote me. Fortunately, he decided first to talk to me about it. He asked me what I thought was expected of me, and then told me what he expected—with no ambiguity or room for misinterpretation. I was incredibly thankful this, because I wasn’t aware of any of his expectations of me. I’d been doing everything my direct manager had asked of me—even getting proactive about her priorities.
But her expectations and her manager’s expectations weren’t even close. I ultimately ended up becoming a top performer, but I would have never had the chance if my boss’s boss hadn’t taken the opportunity to have a candid and clear conversation with me to establish clear expectations.
Learn about the team member – What do they want?
Ask your team member—What are their goals? Hopes? Fears? Aspirations? Then look at how that all aligns (or doesn’t) with your underperforming team member’s role and responsibilities.
Team Members can underperform because they’re in the wrong role. Or because their responsibilities aren’t matched to their strengths. Or because their motivation is hurt by feeling stuck. The reasons are too numerous to list here.
But your team member’s expectations about their role and their future can affect their performance just as much as your expectations. So just ask. I did.
My team member didn’t have aggressive aspirations of moving up in the company. He had come from roles where he was expected to act like a passive order taker. Critical thinking was discouraged. This helped set his expectations and effort level.
When I shared with him a vision where he could take more ownership of what he did, where he could operate without being micromanaged, and where he could be proactive to shape the results of what he produced, and a measurement plan that involved focusing on the results of what he did and not focused on checking off tasks from a list regardless of their effect, he quickly started acting differently. And I think he began to consider a different vision of what he could be doing.
He still wasn’t going to be as aggressive as someone who was trying to climb the ranks. But within a month or two, when prompted, he began making suggestions for ways we could improve our KPIs based on his own observations and reasoning.
Learn about the team member – Skills match
Is your team member even a good match for the responsibilities assigned to them? Take a written inventory of all the individual skills your team member needs to succeed in their role. You can even have your team member generate one separately so you can compare notes to see how far off yours is from theirs.
Then compare it with their actual skills. Mark all the matches. Mark all the required skills that they don’t have. Note the skills they have that they don’t need for the role. Go through this list with them. You may discover they have skills you don’t know about.
Maybe your team member is better suited for a different role altogether. Maybe you they take on some new responsibilities that match their skills and you can move responsibilities they’re not suited for to another team member who is. Maybe they can get their skills in good shape with some professional development.
Either way, writing down these skills inventories and comparing them should give you some good ideas for next steps.
Meet regularly, especially at the beginning
Underperforming team members often get a double whammy. Not only are they not producing to expectations, but that fact often leads managers to neglect the underperformer, electing to spend time on team members and activities they think will be more productive. Unfortunately, this deprives the underperforming team member of the attention they need to turn things around.
Setting frequent and regular check-ins with your team member will help you get a good gauge on progress and more quickly make adjustments. And you’re going to have to make a lot of adjustments early on if you’re attempting to turn around underperformance.
My team member was a remote worker, so this was doubly important. I didn’t have the chance to swivel my chair around or walk down the hall. Without regular check-ins, we easily could have gone weeks without talking. But we didn’t. We scheduled a weekly hour-long check-in call and another weekly light chat-based check-in. We did our weekly call on Tuesdays so we could take stock of what needed to be done for the week and shape the week’s activities. We covered:
- What we did last week
- What we didn’t complete last week
- Progress on ongoing projects
- What we planned to do that week
- Project blockers and what we could do to resolve them
- KPI review
- Two-way performance feedback loop
Our Thursday, chat check-ins were basically a mini assessment on progress. We discussed where we were versus where we expected to be, quickly tried to resolve any questions or simple blockers, and re-prioritized if needed. As time wore on and we got into a better rhythm where my team member’s activities were well matched with my expectations, we were able to reduce this cadence without worrying about performance falling off again. And if performance does fall off again after you loosen up on your check-ins, don’t freak out. Just go back to the last meeting cadence where you were seeing success. The journey to performance improvement isn’t always linear. There may be a few hiccups on the way up.
What cadence should you use? That’s ultimately up to you. This one worked for me. Yours may be different. Factors like whether your team member is in the office with you, what kind of functions they perform, and how frequently you communicate through other tools outside of your scheduled meetings can all affect your optimal meeting cadence.
Start with really specific & prescriptive goals and deadlines
This works kind of like an extension of your expectations. When you leave goals, assignments or deadlines vague, you leave room for misinterpretation. By being highly specific, you give the team member no wiggle room to misunderstand. And that gives you a great assessment point to see what was hurting your team member’s performance most—ambiguity, skills or attitude. It can also help your team member get a better understanding of what you’re actually trying to accomplish, how and why, which can help them improve if they’re motivated to do so.
So, when I was working with my team member, instead of saying, “Let’s try and bump up our rank for hosted PBX by a couple of positions,” I’d say something more like, “I’d like you to produce two blog posts of at least 600 words on the subject of hosted PBX, with that key term in the title tag, the headline, and the body, as well as using it as anchor text to the target page at least once in each blog post. I’d also like you to create links to the target page using hosted PBX as the anchor text from these other three pre-existing URLs.”
This made things simple. He either did the things I asked him to correctly or he didn’t.
It wasn’t much surprise to me that he didn’t have any issue following instructions like this. He wasn’t unintelligent by any stretch. But having come from roles in the company where he didn’t have any responsibility for SEO, you could argue it was a stretch to assume he should have known how to generate a specific outcome without some guidance. And the more he observed the specific types of work we did to accomplish specific goals, the more he caught on. Which leads me to my next point.
Explain your thinking as you work through projects together
At its essence, most training works this way. You get a person started by having them execute simple tasks. As they gain skill at the simple stuff, you begin explaining why they’re doing each of these tasks, and the role each plays in the larger picture. The more they do and the more you explain why, the more they start to get a feel for the whole process.
Then, if they’re starting to turn things around, they’ll be able to start telling you why they’re doing the tasks you’ve assigned to them, and ultimately begin suggesting tasks themselves in service of their goals.
I did this both for the work I assigned to my team member and the work I was doing myself. I shared with him examples of what I did and talked about why I did each one. This gave him lots of opportunities to notice patterns and understand the underlying principles. After a while, I also began presenting assignments, or actions I had taken, and asking him if he could tell me why. He got better at it with time and began to show understanding of the underlying principles that eventually allowed him to start suggesting his own assignments based on our goals.
Begin feeding them progressively more proactive work
You’ve probably already noticed this as an unspoken theme in the rest of this piece. But as I got comfortable that my team member was beginning to really understand core concepts, demonstrate skills and perform closer to expectations, he got more autonomy and less oversight.
You shouldn’t let the rope all out at once. Start by finding a single opportunity for your team member to stretch themselves. If that goes well, find another. And another. Accelerate it just fast enough that you don’t overshoot their performance progress trajectory and hurt their confidence by giving them too many challenges too big too fast. Underperformer confidence is often more fragile than the average team member. Giving your team member chances at proactive work also help you assess more than understanding and ability, they give you good indicators of their motivation level. Some underperforming team members are just not motivated, and they’ll reveal themselves here. And if they are motivated, getting the trust of their manager can really slingshot their dedication and performance.
The 3X Secret Sauce
That’s the secret to how I got 3x more performance out of my underperforming team member than anyone else could. He wasn’t destined to be a rock star. But he was capable of much more than he was showing.
It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of work. And not everyone will have the patience for it. But it can really pay off, especially if you uncover a dormant top performer hiding beneath motivation issues or unclear expectations or a skills mismatch. Plus, you may get the satisfaction (and gratitude) of helping someone turn around their whole situation. And it’s hard to put a KPI on that.
About Hal Werner
Hal Werner is a Dallas-based content strategist and digital marketer that turns customer insight into customer action. He does this with a heap of data, a big helping of creativity and a sampler of leadership hacks. His unique combination of creative background and analytical prowess delivers an unfair advantage in a marketing landscape littered with mediocre content and experiences. Find more of his actionable insights on his blog and follow him on Twitter.
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