I actually had someone say this to me after I made a disparaging comment under my breath about someone I believed was not giving their best. I realized the passive-aggressive comment was not professional, but I felt like I had done everything I could do and the person was not listening. What I realized was that that person’s definition of working hard and my definition of working hard were different. The individual calming me down at the time slowly convinced me that no one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, I will refuse to work hard and I will not try.” He simply said, “Nobody is not trying.”
I began to understand that discrepancy in what I wanted and what some people wanted to give. I wanted a top performer out of everyone. I needed to understand that everyone was giving their best and it was my job to work closely with the individuals to figure out what needed to be done to get them there. I felt obligated to maximize the effort and performance, and to drive greater consistency. As I learned over time, effort and performance are like opinions, and they will often differ.
Many times, the effort and performance can be sporadic in some individuals, while you watch the solid rocks of your teams perform day in and day out. If a consistent performer is struggling on that rare day, it typically becomes very obvious. As a leader, we should work with the person to understand the root cause of these short-term struggles and offer our support. Many times, there is no need to micro-manage a person like this. The attention given asking, “Are you all right,” may be enough. Providing assistance may also be as easy as letting someone work through it on their own and letting them know you are there to help, if needed. Performance managers should not allow this to be the easy way out every time. However, if you know your people well enough, you will develop a good sense of when to interject and when to just check in. The message is to ensure that you are not blanketing everyone with the same type of feedback.
You can also never go wrong with extra encouragement. It is the individual’s ability to cope and break through that may make the difference. Individuals respond to certain methods differently and how you have built the relationship is important. Please note that this does not have to be a manager-employee relationship. It can be peers we work with, in whom we have noticed a dip in performance.
The key is to understand what the root cause for the variation in performance is, and what we can do to fix it. It is important to understand as early in the given day as possible if you feel someone is not performing at his or her best. Neither of you want the whole day wasted. I have seen too many managers wait until the end of the day to say something because they didn’t notice until the end-of-day statistics came out, or felt too busy to offer a simple encouraging word or tap someone on the shoulder and let them know they were there for support. In these cases, eight hours could have gone by causing a non-productive day that must now be written off. Even if the effort was there but the performance was not, the lack of attention during those troubled times may hurt the overall team, and may cause further frustration for the person and send them into a longer slump.
If I am dealing with a person who consistently struggles, I need to better understand what motivates the person, what his or her skill set is, and change the way I am working with them. If I have gone to the same well over and over, I need to ask what I can do differently. Notice that I said what “I” can do differently. I may bark the same instructions or use the same canned motivation to drive the person. If it is not working, I need to change. Creativity is important. I can’t give up on them. I personally see it as my own failure if someone struggles with his or her performance, and it is my obligation to fix it. Early in my career, this perspective was because I thought I would be looked at negatively by upper management. As the years went on, I felt the challenge of breaking through with all performers and building each individual relationship as my own motivation.
I banged my head on the wall about a particular individual who seemed to not get it. His frustration level and constant low performance made it look like he wasn’t trying. He simply froze when speaking with customers on the phone. He said he wanted to do well, but his efforts did not exhibit this. The individual said he felt that he wasn’t getting answers to make him better and felt he lacked direction from me. I felt like I had invested far too much time with him and it was time to put my efforts elsewhere on the team. We were at an impasse. I knew I did not want to give up on him, but I felt I could not sacrifice the rest of the team for this individual. I almost did give up. I tried to get him into another department, and asked if he really wanted to be with the company.
I woke up one morning and said I was going back to basics. I decided to try a different tack. I started asking him more open ended questions. I know he mentioned that he wasn’t getting enough direction from me, but I decided to provide him with even less. I needed his buy-in. I asked what he thought his issues were by asking him simpler questions. I had previously been too targeted with my questions, many of which were assumptive in nature. I assumed I knew the issue and thought I was providing remedies to my self-diagnosed symptoms. What I failed to accomplish was getting to the real root causes.
I began to ask if the struggles were in the phone conversations themselves. Was it the selling to our customers? Was it the computer system? I knew he may not be able to put his finger on it, but I could act as a detective to diagnose where to start—but only after I had his buy-in to be part of the solution.
It is easy to have the poor performer sit next to other top performers and say, “Do what I do.” People learn at different paces and in different ways. Some like classroom learning, others like visual stimulation, while many just like to be thrown in and just start doing it themselves. We can’t blanketly teach each person the same way. In that case, the two of us began to rearrange how the computer system looked on the screen. We put certain applications in the front that he seemed to reference more often and placed other applications in the background that he didn’t use as much but could get to quickly, if needed.
We both had an immediate epiphany. He had been overwhelmed with his own system set-up. His frustration translated into mincing words with customers because he was worried about where to go next on the screen. This impacted his ability to sell the most suitable products to meet the customers’ needs. This simple change in his screen set-up created an almost immediate superstar top performer. His confidence level climbed and he significantly exceeded his performance expectations. He was making a difference on the team and was quickly becoming a leader. He came from the verge of elimination to the top of the podium.
Each individual is unique and needs to be driven, inspired, and motivated differently. Each person’s ability to try and succeed also varies and needs to be understood at an individual level. If you think someone is “not trying,” take a different, creative approach. We need to be patient when someone is not performing, since some people break out of it more easily than others. I am now convinced that most people can do it with the right coaching, leadership, and support. I have learned that I can’t offer solutions until I can identify and fix the symptoms first. I realized I had to try to understand the cause first. The person may be having personal issues or may not be feeling well, but I am confident that he or she did not wake up and say, “Today I’m going to intentionally have a bad day.”
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
MP3 Downloads of “From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide” are available at Apple iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Emusic, Nokia, Xbox Music, Spotify, Omnifone, Google Music Store, Rdio, Muve Music, Bloom.fm, Slacker Radio, MediaNet, 7digital, 24-7, Rumblefish, and Shazam “From Fear to Success” MP3 on CD Baby