Dealing With Under-Performers and Under-Achievers
Growing up as the oldest of 5 boys in Central New Jersey, I was always involved with sports. While there was organized baseball, basketball and football leagues, it certainly wasn't as organized or a politically correct as it is today. For the most part it was just the boys playing a pick-up game and girls were usually not welcome.
Sports were much simpler then, it was about having a good time and winning - but not necessarily in that order. Large groups of us would get together, decide on the captains of the day and proceed to choose-up sides. Trust me when I tell you that friendship was out the window while choosing up sides. Yesterday, I might have saved your life, but if I was a lousy baseball player, I knew you wouldn't choose me and that was okay. I knew where my talents stacked up because I was given constant feedback. If I made a great play, my teammates told me right away. If I screwed-up they were equally as vocal. Effort counted for very little. The only thing my teammates of the day cared about was the results. If I wanted to be spared the indignity of being the last one chosen, all I had to do was step-up my game. The feedback was immediate because tomorrow I would be chosen higher in the draft of the day.
They understood that friendship was out the window and the only thing that mattered was results.
-- Herb Cannon
In retrospect it is amazing how ruthless the captains would be for something
that counted for so little. Wouldn't it have been better to spare peoples
feelings and draw names out of a hat? After all it was only a baseball game.
This way everyone could feel good and go home with the feeling that they were of equal athletic ability to everyone else. What a politically correct and
wonderful world it would have been!
I now work with people the same age as myself who undoubtedly grew-up having the captains of the day choose-up sides. Whether they were the best player or the worst player, they too had their turn at being captain. They understood that friendship was out the window and the only thing that mattered was results.
I sit with them at the Monday morning staffing meetings where the partners
choose their team for the week. Invariably the same people are the last ones
chosen or forced upon a reluctant partner. How does this happen and why don't
we deal with the bottom of the list to improve their performance and make them a valuable member of the team? After all aren't the stakes much higher when
running an A/E firm?
I have thought about this quite a bit and offer the following:
Politically Correct Society
Certainly part of the reason for not dealing with
this issue is the fact that we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. We have
evolved into a society where no one can have their feelings hurt - even if it is for their own good. We have been so conditioned to believe that if someone is not successful - it is not their fault. The standards must be too tough. The standards are biased or subjective. The company has not provided the proper training, equipment or mentoring. The list of reasons (excuses) is almost endless.
Since there is always an excuse, we are uncomfortable giving feedback to
employees about their performance. At the end of the day, I am convinced we
don't deal with the under performers because it makes us feel bad to tell
someone they are not performing up to expectations.
The annual review offers a convenient excuse of not giving immediate feedback to our employees. It is always easier to defer the problem to sometime in the future. After all we will be having this persons annual review in another 4 months! Let's just wait until then. Of course when the annual review come around, we give this employee lukewarm praise and almost never address what is needed to turn them into a top performer (or at least a better performer).
Our Litigious Society
All too often we don't take corrective action with employees for fear of being sued. Let's face it; nobody wants to get sued for workplace discrimination - but employers often use this as an excuse for inaction. I have seen the clearest cases of employee incompetence, dishonesty and non-performance not dealt with. Ask the owner why they haven't terminated this employee, their response will be: "I don't want to be sued," when in reality they just want to avoid the confrontation.
Don't get me wrong. We do live in a litigious society and the chances of being sued are quite real. However we need to stop hiding behind this threat and take steps to protect ourselves from litigation.
How can we do better?
First of all talk to your professional liability insurance carrier about "employment practices insurance." The major professional liability carriers now offer this coverage for a very reasonable price. Talk to them, pay the premium and deal with your under performing employees!
Don't wait for an annual performance review to give people feedback on their
work. Use frequent project reviews to give employees feedback on their
performance. This approach depersonalizes the conversation. The focus is on
the project result they produced (or didn't produce) rather than them
personally. When reviewing their project work give them feedback on what they
did well and what they need to improve upon. Be specific! If it took too long to produce the work product, let them know. If they didn't follow the CADD standards and caused others days of work to fix their drawings, now is the time to tell them. Use this opportunity to get them the training they need and turn them into productive employees.
Take the attitude that negative feedback helps employees develop their careers. I have seen employees work at firms for years thinking they were doing a good job and never being told what management thought of their work. They muddle along wondering why others are being promoted and given better opportunities.
If consistent feedback is given to your employees there are few if any surprises at the annual review. The review becomes a welcome process to review their contributions and set personal goals for the coming year.
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