by Deb Boelkes, author of “The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture“
Sooner or later, even the most talent-rich companies wind up with an underperformer on the team. When they’re undealt with, these less-than-stellar workers create a negative ripple effect. Your best performers become demotivated, resentment festers, and worst of all, productivity suffers. That’s why leaders are supposed to set high expectations for all employees — and hold them accountable for a job done poorly. So why do so many of us drop the ball in this area?
It’s often a matter of mindset. We may focus on how unpleasant it is to confront people about performance (or even worse, fire them) and so we procrastinate. We forget we’re doing everyone a favor by quickly addressing the problem — including the underperformer.
You’re doing one of two things when you hold someone accountable for not living up to their agreed-on expectations. You’re either forcing them to get back on track and do the work they’re capable of doing or — if you have to let them go — you’re removing them from a situation that was most likely wrong for them in the first place.
In fact, once the dust dies down, they may come back and thank you. When you can look at it this way, you may be less likely to put off what you know needs to be done.
When organizations consistently set clear and firm expectations and hold people to them, what I call “the WOW factor” is more likely to manifest and permeate the entire culture. WOW factor workplaces are those that create a great experience for employees and customers. Part of creating this experience is helping people understand what they must do to succeed, and taking action to prod them back onto the right path if they veer away from it.
Here are some insights from my book on helping employees stay accountable and encouraging them to do their best work.
Remember that the performance buck stops with you, the leader.
Blaming others is not an option. That’s why heartfelt leaders accept total responsibility for the team’s and each team member’s results. When expectations are not being met, take a moment to assess what YOU can do to improve the employee’s performance. They may need mentoring, or a candid discussion about what is preventing them from delivering results, or even a formal warning. It’s up to you to choose the right path.
Set expectations upfront.
People need to know what “right” looks like. WOW factor workplaces typically have a well-documented set of behavior standards and performance expectations. This is an agreement between you and the employees about what you each expect from each other. If you don’t already have such an agreement, schedule a planning session and work with others in the organization to create one.
It’s THEIR job to perform, but it’s YOUR job to engage and motivate them.
Here’s what the late Teresa Laraba, former senior vice president of customer services for Southwest Airlines, had to say: “There does have to be a core sense in individuals that motivates them to come to work. They must want to get up in the morning and want to live their life. But once they get to your place of employment, especially as a leader, it is your responsibility to make sure the workplace is as engaging and welcoming as it can be. Especially in our case, you are living out what people expect at Southwest Airlines: a caring environment.”
You can’t take your team any further than you can take yourself.
Great leaders, heartfelt leaders, live by example. To set a good example for your team, work on your own performance. Continue developing new skills and abilities that help you perform your job better. If you work to better yourself, you will be an inspiration to your team, and they will work hard to live up to the same standards.
Build strong relationships with lots of quick check-ins.
“If you take the time to get to know your employees as you work with them every day, as you walk by them every day, if you have just two or three one-minute engagements as you walk through your workplace, it builds,” said Southwest Airline’s Teresa Laraba.
“Every time you interact with employees, you should be building those relationships. They will be so much more loyal to the company and to your mission if they know you care as a leader. If you don’t invest that time, or you have fooled yourself into thinking you don’t have time, or you don’t look at every opportunity to interact as time invested in an employee, it’s your loss, their loss, and the company’s loss.”
Reach out if an employee appears unhappy.
If you get the sense that one of your employees is upset or struggling, the worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Here’s some advice from Laraba: “As leaders, you are responsible for keeping employees engaged, helping to keep morale up, and tapping into why an employee may not be happy. Maybe they don’t appear to be motivated, but they have been motivated until now. You can’t just ignore that. You must find out what’s going on. There is obviously something that’s happened. You need to reach out to them. We do not subscribe to ‘you leave your problems at the door.’ You do, in the sense the customer shouldn’t have to pay for your employees’ problems, but as leaders you ought to know what’s going on with them and find out if there’s something that’s stopping your employees from delivering on their work promise that day.”
Lay out a SMART performance improvement plan…
When people aren’t meeting agreed-to expectations, leaders of WOW factor workplaces will collaborate with the underperformer. Together with the employee, develop an improvement plan that spells out SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Time-bound). Both sides should agree to each improvement objective. Each party is responsible for holding the other accountable to his or her end of the agreed-to bargain.
… and see to it that you both uphold your ends of the deal.
If you — the manager — fail to stick to your end of the deal, you start again. If the underperformer fails to achieve each of the SMART goals agreed to in the mutually developed performance improvement plan, the exit plan agreed to in the consequences section of the improvement plan is implemented. This process may be time-consuming for the manager, but it wastes a whole lot less time and causes far less suffering for everyone in the impacted organization over the long run.
Here’s what Colleen Barrett, president emeritus and corporate secretary of Southwest Airlines, had to say about letting an underperformer go: “I have had to look dear friends in the eye and tell them they couldn’t keep a job because of something they’d done or whatever. Or I couldn’t recommend them for another job because of whatever, and I still retained the friendship. You know, that’s hard. But if you’re just honest with people, I think the worst disservice you can do is NOT tell somebody when they are not making the grade. That’s just ridiculous.”
When expectations are not met, tough love is the right answer.
I haven’t had to put too many underperformers on such a plan, but I never hesitated to do so when it was necessary. With chronically unhappy or incapable employees, or an obvious cultural misfit, doing so was always the right thing to do, and, in the end, ALL the team members thanked me, even the underperformer. The underperformer either got his or her act together, or moved on to something more in line with his or her passions and desires, which was often the underlying issue in the first place.
If you determine that you must let someone go, do it quickly.
Todd Wilcox, founder and executive chairman of Patriot Defense, says, “That’s been the one lesson that’s been recurring, the one I’ve been hammering my subordinates on: ‘Look. I’ve been telling you all along. I’ve made these mistakes in not firing people fast enough.’ If I’d have done that sooner with some of the people, we might not have lost some of the value that came along with their catastrophic failures, because we didn’t fire them fast enough.”
Remember that holding people accountable for performance doesn’t mean you don’t like and care about them.
Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks Coffee, says, “Look, you can like somebody, you can love somebody, but they may not be able to perform in the position they currently have. It doesn’t make them bad people. We have this good/bad thing based on performance. Let’s assume all people are good. Let’s make that assumption: All people are good. As long as you keep that always at the forefront, the person I’m talking to who isn’t performing is still a good person, who still has lots of redeeming qualities, then, his or her performance is a different thing. It may be something the person can do, is not able to do, maybe could do in a different kind of job, or maybe do in another company, whatever it happens to be… However, you can still love them; you can still care about them. When they know that, they will do everything they can not to let you down, not to let their teammates down, and not to let themselves down.”
The result of holding your employees (and yourself!) to high standards is that your team will exceed your objectives and develop exceptional camaraderie. The best people will want to work for you, and you’ll most likely have a stream of superstar performers waiting in the wings.
Aiming high always pays off. Expect great things from your people and support them, and they will go above and beyond for you!
Deb Boelkes is not just a role model heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on creating best places to work, with 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America. She is author of “The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture“.