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What works best to get a low performer up to par?

It’s estimated that about 10% of all employees are so-called low-performers. There is no shortage of heated discussions and well-meant advice from HR- and Business Consultants concerning those ten percent. In this article, we will take a closer look at the matter. Who are those low-performers? And how did they end up being one?


Despite the many possible reasons, both in their private lives and at work, it seems logical to assume that 4.3 million employees do not consciously decide to work less or do their work badly. No one is born a low performer, and the “Bluffer” who puts effort into working as little as possible is likely to be more an exception than the rule. Usually, low performance is the result of a lengthy development. There is a wide variety of causes. If those are based in the job setting they could be a sudden loss of trust in colleagues or a superior, or a slow decline of motivation due to a lack of opportunities for advancement within the company. Another reason could be boring or monotonous work.


Of course, that strongly depends of the kind of field the person is working in and whether it fits their preferences, skills, and personality. Nowadays it is also unlikely for a job to stay exactly the same for many years, and gradual changes can lead to slowly building frustration; like when a new software is introduces with which the employee is not familiar, or some re-structuring within the company leads to a different work environment – especially when the employee didn’t have a word in which of the new business units he ends up. Another common source of frustration is the impression to constantly be passed over for promotions, and therefore disadvantage. Whether such subjective impressions are objectively correct is not important at this point. Lack of recognition, the realization that good work leads to neither verbal praise nor has any impact on the pay levels, lead to diminishing engagement. Ultimately, this can kill the employees’ motivation completely. The employee ends up in a spiral of boredom and frustration.


Hence, in most cases low-performers don’t slack off because of bad intentions, it is more a logical consequence of their personal work environment. One exception are employees who truly do not possess the skills necessary to do the job. That, however, is plainly a sign of wrong hire and bad decisions during the hiring process. In this case, too, a simple crack-down from the boss is the wrong method of choice.


Cracking down is not a sign of strong leadership, but one of helplessness


It is a common thing for articles and blogs dealing with HR themes, to recommend that boss’ crack down whenever employees show consistently low performance. The boss’ are then generally blamed of shying away from conflict, and encouraged to use sanctions, give warnings, and if necessary lay off the employee. This is based on the assumption that low performers are all bluffer and troublemakers who just don’t want to work. The question when and why an employee became a low-performer is seen as irrelevant. Anyone not achieving the expected results is punished in so many ways. In today’s business world, such an approach seems archaic. The right approach would be to identify the underlying reasons, and find a way to motivate the employee to do good work (again.)


The first step would be a definition what is considered a low-performer. In today’s achievement-driven society, one can easily get the impression that everyone around is a career-person willing to make countless sacrifices for their job. This impression is misleading, though, as most are just the typical “nine-to-five” workers, who like their work but are still not going to continuously sacrifice family and social life to achieve career goals. Managers often take this as lack of ambition.


Is someone who consciously is trying to keep working overtime to a minimum a low-performer? Not really, because those who actively seek out a good work-life balance are usually dependable and true employees as well, who like their jobs and do them really well. What goals or values drive a person and as such also decides about how hard they work, is different for everyone, but those differences does not automatically make us good or bad employees or people.


Of course there are also those who really do bad work, who like to push off tasks onto someone else’s desk, continuously slack off, refuse to take responsibility and regularly miss deadlines; those for whom the word team translates to “someone else will do the work”. They can be found even some way up in the hierarchy: Managers, especially in the middle management, who mostly work to avoid attention and changes to their secure little kingdom within the company structure. Low performers can be found in small family business as well as in big corporations, and they have a bad influence on others in their department.


What’s to do to counter this phenomenon?  The seemingly easiest solution would be to fight this group of employees with hard measures, give official warnings, or let them go completely. Many managers see low-performers as a danger to the whole team’s motivation. They are not entirely wrong, but are looking at the problem from the wrong end, fighting the symptoms rather than the underlying illness. At a time when there is a lack of skilled workers in some industries and regions and an already high turnover rate, this approach is too simplistic.


In Central Europe, we are once again starting to feel the limited supply of the resource “manpower”. This time the reason for this is not a huge war with many in their working age dead, but because of a slow change in demographics, which started as early as in the nineties, toward an “older” society with fewer children. This topic has been thoroughly debated in the discussion about pensions fund, but should also be mentioned here to point out that it’s well worth the effort to turn today’s low-performers into tomorrow’s high potentials. This in no way suggests a general laissez-faire leadership style. On the contrary, the lack of a discernible leadership can easily become part of the cause of low performance. Still, employees prefer a reasonable amount of freedom and room for decisions in their work, not the strict boss who decides every tiny detail and breathes down everyone’s neck. Old-fashioned authoritarian style is therefore not a solution either.


As a leader, it is necessary to carefully observe and not blindly follow a pattern. Finding our why an employee is exhibiting a certain behavior is essential for finding a lasting solution. This also means to not wondering about possible causes from the safety of the corner office, but to go out and actively seek a conversation with the employees, preferably in a private, to confront them with your observations and assessment. It is advisable to stick to a mix of understanding and demanding. It is also necessary to be open and allow the employee to freely present his own view of the situation. The reasons might lie in some unknown private problems (like a divorce, a grave illness in the family, etc.) but often enough will be directly connected to the boss themselves. Hence it should be clearly pointed out early in the conversation that the employee is free to also voice clear thought-out criticism of the boss. Every behavior makes sense in a certain context, even that of a low performer. Who only tries to play the strict and unbendable boss will not be able to identify and solve the underlying problems.


Especially leaders in the middle management often don’t realize whether they are demanding too much or too little of their subordinates, whether they are overwhelmed or bored, frustrated or exhausted. If you ask around during leadership seminars whether these bosses know what’s important to their people and what they need to effectively lead, many will have a rough idea or strategy, but not a clear and definitive answer to all those questions. Usually the managers of that level feel like they are caught in the proverbial treadmill, and lack the full view of the big picture.


Any leader who decides to not just write off low performers but believes that it’s possible to and is truly interested in re-motivating and developing such employees, has to work on the underlying causes and try to find solutions in cooperation with the employee in question, for example by setting out new goals. Anyone trusted with a professional leadership position has to set the guidelines and deploy their staff according to their individual knowledge, skills, talents and personal values.

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Herr Daniel Stock d.stock(@)top-jobs-europe.de