by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently, I was coaching a group of insurance professionals on providing direct and specific feedback to employees who are just not getting the job done. In many cases, it was the second, third or fourth conversation they’ve had with this employee, talking about the same performance issues. The frustration level of seminar participants was off the charts. Many kept asking the question; “Why don’t these people get it? If they keep underperforming, we are going to have to let them go.” It seems like a simple question, but for many underperformers in the workplace, there are a variety of reasons for their lack of effectiveness. Here is a short list:

--Some team members just don’t have the skills to get the job done. You can communicate all you want about performance expectations and even if your message is understood, that doesn’t mean that the employee has the ability to do anything about it. The scary part is that very often that employee actually thinks he is doing a good job, but has no sense of what doing a good job really means in the eyes of those evaluating his performance.

--Check this one out. The employee does in fact have the skills and talent to do the job, but lacks the passion, enthusiasm and commitment to execute. In many cases, he is not going to tell you that, because what would it sound like? “Boss, I hear you, but I need to tell you that I’m just not feeling it. This job stinks. I can’t quit because I’ve got a family to support. I need this stupid job.” Such communication would be refreshingly honest, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen. Lots of folks are holding on to their jobs, even if they are not performing well because the alternative in this economy is frightening.

--Now consider the employee who is talented, has a positive attitude, but is dealing with serious personal issues. There could be problems with alcohol and/or drugs (think Charlie Sheen), or, there could be a very sick parent, child or spouse that is consuming the employee’s energy and focus. Even with the best intentions and solid skills, a terrific employee can lose his or her edge and start underperforming when there is so much pressure outside of the workplace.

--Sometimes the problem is about communication. You may THINK you’ve made it crystal clear what the performance expectations are, but the employee is confused. Consider the manager who says something like; “You are doing a good job, but you are not doing it consistently enough.” The employee responds; “Yes I am. I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m hitting my numbers, so I don’t know what the problem is.” The frustrated manager then says; “But you are not doing it consistently enough.” You can see where this conversation is going…No where. The problem is with the word “consistent” which could be easily misinterpreted.

The job of the manager is to communicate in a more precise and specific fashion like; “Jim, you’ve hit your quota of 20 sales calls per month in November and December. However, in January, you only had 14 sales calls and 18 in February. That is not acceptable.” Jim can’t argue with the numbers, even if he argues with the standard of performance. Further, in terms of improving performance, the manager might say; “Jim, in March, you must hit at least 20 sales calls, but to be recognized for our Gold Star Sales Award, you will have to do 25 sales calls this month.” Like I said, be more specific than you think you need to be.