How to turn a chronic low-performer into a shining star
You are getting desperate because a long-term non-performer in your team just doesn’t seem to get your feedback.
You have tried literally EVERYTHING.
You have tried from the positive angle — you have explored the job content. You have discussed how he feels in the team. Whether he has the support he needs. The job he likes. The task that is challenging enough.
You have tried from the negative side too — you have cut his bonus several quarters in a row. You have cut his home office days to zero. You provided regular feedback on your 1-on-1s. Yet, he just doesn’t get it.
And there you are. Your team is under-staffed and you are facing a better-than-nobody dilemma. If you get rid of this guy, your already overloaded team will have to absorb his workload.
When managers complain to me that they did literally everything they could and this low-performer will not change his modus operandi, they are always surprised when I ask them:
“Does your person know he is a non-performer?”
They are sure he does and they are surprised to find out he doesn’t.
Let me explain.
I am a great believer in positive intentions.
People generally don’t want to be team losers.
You hired them for a reason and kept them in the team, you either saw value or potential.
Unless your team member is testing how long he can get paid for nothing until you fire him (I have seen only a handful of such cases in my career), he genuinely does not know he is so much off the mark. Weird, huh? You are telling him all the time and he thinks you are just chatting.
It is happening in all types of companies — in family businesses as well as in large corporations. In startups even more as the informal atmosphere, breeding grounds for different ideas and opinions, and elements of fun create room for different expectations and interpretations.
Here is how you can solve it — and yes, it does involve certain risk and some work. It does even sound corporate, but I promise, seen through the lenses of my 20 years experience of working with managers, it works and it is worth it.
Here is what you need to do in three steps:
Step #1: Make it serious.
Set the scene right. Plan for a formal meeting. Invite your HR/your business partner/your boss. Make it clear this is his last chance — the Performance Improvement Plan will be presented to him and failure to deliver will result in contract termination. Wake up call.
Step #2: Put your expectations in writing.
Present a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Put together one to five goals and make sure they are SMART.
Specific — describe what the expectations are, exactly what is wanted.
Measurable — Describe how he performs now, how he needs to perform at the end of the evaluation period in quantifiable terms (in case of a behavioral gap you may want to refer to your company Code of Conduct as a baseline).
Achievable — How to get there. Is a skill missing? List supporting material, training, or mentor.
Realistic — is it possible to fill the gap?
Time bound — till when?
Step #3: Put it as an opportunity.
This meeting probably comes as a cold shower. Your associate is probably in shock, assessing what the loss of this job would mean for him. Tell him you want to keep him in your team. Tell him why. Tell him you believe in him. And tell him you are sure he can deliver to the Performance Improvement Plan and that you are ready to support him.
Mean it. It only works if your intentions are genuine and your support real.
Start the process NOW!
This is what a typical reaction looks like in phases:
Phase 1 — Escape Plan.
Whatever the feeling (shock, anger, disappointment, disgust, distrust, feeling of unfairness), your associate is likely to jump to a job portal and seek other opportunities.
By doing so, he will either find out that there are no jobs that he is qualified for and look better than the one he has now or that the world is full of suitable job opportunities.
The latter case will trigger the evaluation of the real value he sees in the job he currently has.
Phase 2 — Decision. Stay or Leave.
If he decides to leave, well, it’s a loss — the value or the potential you have seen in him as well as all the money and energy invested in his training is lost. But more importantly, it is an opportunity to get a future star on board as his replacement.
If he decides to stay though, he has made an active decision. He was staying before but that was passive, something like a hibernation. Now he has all the motivation to deliver to your expectations and you can count on his active cooperation.
His pride may even kick in and he will show you! He can outperform your damn PIP!
Phase 3 — Clarity. Ambition.
This wake up call was truly awakening. Your associate has stopped and reflected. He has assessed his worth, he has assessed the worth of his current job for him. He realizes what he wants.
He wants a job he likes, in a company he loves to work for.
If it’s not your company, think of all the frustration he brought to you and your team when he was disengaged. Execute on your remedy plan — distribute his tasks among the rest of the team temporarily, disable his accounts and access rights and worst case escort him from the facility. Roll up your sleeves and go get your superstar as a replacement.
If it is your company, congratulations!
Maybe his dream job is not the job he is currently in. In that case make it clear he first needs to show you he means it and deliver to the PIP before he moves to another job (you can adjust the PIP so it makes sense in this scenario).
I like to look at it as — I will not make my problem someone else’s problem.
It’s also good practice to keep the team morale high — you don’t want a non-performer to be rewarded by a job transition or even a promotion. You are also buying some time for his current duties and handover preparation.
I assure you your associate will easily deliver to the PIP. He may even start to like his current job in the process; focus, increased competence, and positive feedback will make his job more attractive.
Either way, you have someone who is on a mission.