How to manage underperformers

Your firm suffers when the leaders do not take action.
By Sandra Wiley

Editor’s note: The following book excerpt has been slightly edited for length.

In order to ensure that you are engaging the best and the brightest employees in the firm, you must learn to handle and manage the underperformer.

You may have heard it before, or you may have actually uttered the words, “Why did we wait so long to let that underperforming employee go?” In some firms, this could be called the “underperforming epidemic” or the “underperforming drag,” but no matter what words you are using to describe the problem, the results are the same. Your firm suffers when the leaders do not take action. The other word that I often hear when talking about an underperforming employee is “average.”

I have been attending Strategic Coach, an entrepreneurial coaching think tank, for many years, and one of the concepts that we subscribe to is “the average is where the worst of the best meets the best of the worst.“ That does not sound like the kind of firm you really want to build, does it?

Think about that person in the firm that you really would like to see leave for another opportunity. Now ask yourself, how are you managing them today? Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar to you?

  1. We point out this person’s shortcomings in blunt little comments that we hope he or she catches on to so we really don’t have to have a conversation with this person. Has this ever worked to turn around a person’s performance?
  2. We reduce this person’s job responsibilities, which, much of the time, means that he or she gets to do less for the same pay, and it transfers a higher workload to our superstars. Think about where the reward is going in this scenario. Your underachiever is winning, and your top talent is being punished.
  3. Firing. Firing the person can work, but sometimes, it is shortsighted because you may have overlooked a way to manage this person and make him or her better. It also may have caused you to overlook a unique talent he or she possesses that you missed; therefore, you missed an important attribute that the firm could have really benefited from. In the end, you lost a person that could have been amazing had you just worked with him or her in a slightly different way. Now, you will never know.
  4. Do nothing. Sadly, this is the most likely scenario. Ignore it and the issue might correct itself, or maybe the person will go away on his or her own, which is probably not likely.

Rather than trying one of the previous strategies, let’s examine some strategies that might work for you, the underperformer, and ultimately, the firm. Try the following strategies instead:

  1. Daily communication. This does not mean that you must have a face-to-face, hour-long meeting on a daily basis. An email, instant message, or a quick stop in their office is imperative to help connect the underperformer to the job requirements. This communication should be all about their performance not just personal issues.
  2. Train your supervisors. Increasing your knowledge and your team’s knowledge is critical to helping everyone in the firm. Teaching can come from books, web seminars, conferences, internal training, and coaching. Your excuse cannot be “there are no resources or opportunities.” The only excuse you could possibly give is, “I don’t want to,” and that is not how a true leader thinks.
  3. Coach, counsel, and mentor. Ensure that you are coaching individuals to improve in-the-moment performance issues, counseling them to correct personal or outside-the-professional guidelines issues, and mentoring them to ensure long-term professional goals within the firm. These are all part of helping the underperformer improve his or her career and achieve a higher level of success. Identifying and showing support by connecting is imperative to the underperformer so he or she feels important to the firm and the firm leaders.
  4. Tie their job to overall firm goals. All employees like to feel like what they are doing is important. They want to know that they are making a difference. The more you can tie what they are doing to the overall strategies of the firm and how it helps and improves the lives of the clients, the more likely you will be to turn their performance around. This will not be as easy as it sounds. Enlisting their help in this is important. The other thing that may have to happen is that as you talk through their responsibilities, you will need to watch them do their work, have them do the work, and watch them again.
  5. Teach them—don’t just say “no.” We have a habit of saying no automatically when our team members, especially the less experienced, come up with new ideas or ask questions. It is sometimes blatant, and sometimes a little more subtle, but the message is sent with a megaphone to the team members: Don’t ask questions, just do your work. This is a killer for star performers and underperformers alike. However, there is a pretty easy solution: Stop, listen, and allow. Stop what you are doing. Listen to the idea. Allow yourself to ask questions and clarify before you decide to move forward, get more information, or stop the idea.
  6. Write it down. Make sure you capture all the communication and work that you do with the underperformer. If the worst case scenario happens and you must terminate, you will want all of your hard work recorded.

Following this process will not only protect the firm but will increase the possibility that you can turn a difficult situation into a really positive one. Saving talent and helping them improve is a very rewarding activity for leaders of the firm.

Editor’s note: Excerpted with permission from The Engaged Employee: 10 Initiatives for Successful Firms, ©2015, AICPA.


Sandra Wiley

Sandra Wiley is COO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and is a speaker on topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.


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