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Lessons in Leadership

How to Resolve Serious Performance Problems

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As a manager, you need to differentiate between employee problems that simply call for a coaching conversation and those that require a corrective action discussion. Corrective action should only be taken for serious performance issues. These occur when an employee either exhibits behavior that cannot be tolerated or does not live up to agreements made in previous coaching sessions.

Corrective action discussions must be firm and direct – but not punishing – and the tone should be adult-to-adult, not parent-to-child. The manager must clearly indicate that correcting the situation is the employee’s responsibility, not the manager’s. Consequences of continued performance problems should be determined before the discussion and clearly explained to the employee. These conversations should always be held in private.

A “road map” for a successful corrective action discussion can be found in the following A-B-C-D-E-F formula:

A. Awareness of the problem
First, you must clearly describe the difficulties caused by the performance problem, because troublesome employees are sometimes unaware of the effects of their behavior. Let the employee know that these problems now have to stop. If the employee starts to argue, indicate that this is not a debatable issue.

B. Behavioral expectations
Next, specifically describe the improvement that you expect and what “good performance” will look like. For example, don’t just ask the employee to “be more cooperative” – tell him specifically how, when, and with whom he is expected to cooperate. Give examples to illustrate your points. Make it clear that these changes need to take place immediately.

C. Clear consequences
If poor performance continues, then something unpleasant needs to happen to the employee. Before this conversation, you should have agreed with your own boss on what these consequences will be. Consequences can range from a change in work assignment to a demotion to termination. Tell the employee exactly what will happen next if he fails to improve.

D. Decision to change
You must now ask the employee to make a decision: is she able and willing to change her behavior? This is not a rhetorical question or a gimmick. She really needs to consider whether change is possible. If necessary, she can think about it overnight and give you her decision the following day. If she decides that change is not possible, then she should be given a period of time in which to find another job.

E. Employee involvement
If the employee agrees to change, then she needs to create an action plan. Exactly how is she going to meet the expectations that you have outlined? Ask her to put the action plan in writing. Be sure that she is specific about how she plans to change her behavior.

F. Follow up
Set a time to meet with the employee to assess progress. If he’s doing well, praise his improvement and express appreciation for his efforts. But if no significant change occurs, then enforce the consequences. For this process to work, you must follow through. If you don’t, you send the message that it doesn’t really matter. And you’ll be right back where you started.

It’s been said that “A paycheck doesn’t buy someone’s soul, but it does rent their behavior.” With serious performance issues, you need to change the terms of your “rental agreement” as quickly as possible! Poor performers not only drain their manager’s energy, but also hurt the morale of good employees. Resolving these problems requires some time and attention, but in the long run, it’s definitely worth the effort.

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