If you’ve managed teams, then statistically speaking, you’ve managed underperformers. Having someone on your team not pull his or her weight is not only incredibly frustrating, but it also makes it harder to hit goals—which, as you’ve surely stressed about, reflects badly on you.
But rather than set up yet another meeting, have you asked yourself how you contributed to the underperformance?
Yes, this is your employee’s fault—but it’s also on you. Like any relationship, it’s a two-way street. And while everyone works together differently, there are a number of places where your style, attention (or lack thereof), and communication may have been a contributing factor.
After listening to my fellow managers candidly discuss the lessons they’ve learned along the way, I’ve rounded up some of the most common mistakes, and the first step to turning them (and your employee’s performance) around.
1. You Don’t Share Your Goals
As a manager, your employee needs two critical pieces of information from you: what your goals are for him or her, and what your goals are for yourself and your team overall. Without knowing what success looks like, you’re like two ships sailing in the night with different destination coordinates, yet somehow expecting to end up in the same place.
At the beginning of each quarter, make sure that your team’s and your company’s goals are clear to all of your direct reports. And don’t just talk about this in a meeting—putting them down in writing is key so that they can be revisited when necessary. Then take it one step further and meet with your direct reports to make sure they understand how everyone fits into the bigger picture—and what they’re expected to do in order to help get there. Yes, performance reviews are a great time to reaffirm these goals, but that shouldn’t be the only time you discuss them.
2. You Don’t Give Feedback
Think about the last time you were unhappy with an employee about something he or she did (or didn’t do). Now think about whether or not you communicated that—and if so, if you also addressed how to do things better next time. (And no, bringing it up five months later during a performance review does not count.)
Yes, fear of giving feedback is real, and yes that means you’re not the only one struggling with how to share constructive criticism. But acknowledging that’s only the first step—especially since we know now your employees actually want the negative feedback you have to give.
If there’s a behavior that you’d like to see changed, tell your employee within a week (at most!). Having regular one-on-one meetings scheduled with each person on your team can help make this easier and less of a big deal to both of you, since you can share it as part of a broader conversation. If your employee isn’t very receptive to this, Muse columnist Sara McCord offers some great suggestions on how to give feedback to someone who hates getting it.
3. You Don’t Give Clear, Actionable Feedback
Feedback’s important enough that it’s in here twice. Just giving it alone isn’t enough (though it’s a good start). What you say needs to be clear, and it needs to be actionable. What that means is that “I want to see you work on your communication” is too vague if you’re asking someone to send better emails.
When giving feedback, ask yourself: Could my employee take away at least one thing that he or she can change from what I just said? If the answer is no, it’s not specific enough. For example, in the scenario above, a better response to the email situation would be, “Your update emails are really thorough, which is great, but it can be hard to understand the quick overview and next steps. Next week, can you try pulling the overview and next steps to the top?”
If you’re struggling on how to do this more efficiently, take a look at career coach Lea McLeod’s stellar advice on how to give effective feedback that gets to the point without all the drama.
4. You’re Inconsistent
This is a tricky one to recognize, but sometimes you’re juggling a lot of different things and you can send your employees mixed messages. One week you ask them to be more independent, and the next you want them to keep you more in the loop. To the people who report to you, it seems like you’ve gone all yo-yo on them. Assuming you’re not going hot and cold on purpose (and as a Muse reader, we’re going to assume you’re not), then it’s likely due to an overcorrection on the employee’s side. When you said you wanted him to be more independent, maybe what you really wanted was for him to bring you suggestions to problems rather than just questions.
See above. Giving clear, actionable feedback fixes this in most cases. Keeping notes on the meeting you have with your team members about specific issues can also help you stay consistent.
5. You Manage Everyone the Same Way
Even great bosses make this mistake. When managing a team of diverse personalities and skill sets, it’s important to adapt your style to each employee. Some people thrive with more structure, and others are motivated by being set free. Often times, managers treat their direct reports as they’d like to be treated—and then grow frustrated when that doesn’t result in progress.
Get to know each of your employees and how they work best. Ask them about their preferred style, how they like to receive feedback, and which skills they’d like to develop in the next six to 12 months. By having a better sense of how to work with everyone, you’ll get through to them better—and gain their respect in the process.
6. You Tell, But Don’t Show
Even if you did all of the above (if you did, good job!), there’s one last piece of the puzzle: leading by example. If you’re trying to work on your employees’ written communication, make sure that your emails to them are great examples. Or if you are pushing them to be more responsive, make sure you and other leaders in your organization aren’t constantly MIA. You’d be surprised how many habits and cues your team picks up from you.
Take a look at recurring issues and find ways to model them better for your team. If you’re seeing the same problem come up even after doing that, I’d even recommend being explicit and telling your direct reports that you want to show them an example of what you’re looking for. If nothing else, this approach makes you a stronger manager because you’re actively working on improving.
Managing underperformers isn’t easy, and it can make you feel like you just lost the employee lottery. But with a little patience and self-awareness, you may find that there are some ways that you can better help those struggling on your team—and maybe even turn them into a success story.