You’ve preached, and you’ve coached. You’ve even reprimanded. But the employee who isn’t delivering the kind of performance you need still isn’t changing.
Do you just need to fire them? Not yet.
I’ve used the following 12-step process to coach many managers through turning around lost cause. If you’re in the same situation––or even if you aren’t yet––read on. It’s worth the effort.
An important disclaimer: confer with your HR department before beginning this process.
Here they are: 12 steps to take before cutting a problem staffer loose.
Step 1. Make it crystal clear that the employee’s behavior and/or performance falls well below your expectations.
Provide a detailed description of your expectations to the employee to be sure he understands what good looks like to you. Then, describe his actual behavior and/or performance as frankly as you can.
One technique is to create an expectations vs. actual table, which illuminates the various areas where the employee is falling short. For example, an expectation listed on the table could be: “Facilitate meetings that generate decisions and actions.” Then, the corresponding actual might be: “I have received numerous complaints from your peers and subordinates saying that your meetings are poorly planned, have no clear objectives, and often end without any conclusion, decision, or action.”
Make the employee describe each of your expectations and actuals back to you. In other words, make sure he grasps what you’re telling him by asking him to put what you’ve presented in his own words. Do not move on to the next step until you are sure he understands.
Step 2. Have the employee identify his gaps.
Ask the employee to contemplate what you’ve discussed for a day or two and to identify his own limitations and gaps that must be closed in order for him to meet your expectations. Tell him to make a list with an explanation for each shortcoming included.
Schedule a time about two days after making the request for the two of you to sit down together. During that meeting, he will provide his detailed list.
When you place the burden of identifying his own gaps on the employee, you’re sending a clear signal that you expect him to close those gaps. Additionally, if he identifies gaps on his own, he is more likely to accept those shortcomings as legitimate issues.
Step 3. Agree on the gaps.
During that meeting, work with the employee to agree on which performance and/or behavior gaps she must close in order to meet your expectations.
One way to express gaps is in the from-to format. Here’s what it looks like: “FROM: I have been submitting reports after deadlines.” / “TO: All my reports will be submitted on the morning of the due date.”
Once you have aligned on all the froms-to-tos, write them down in a table (like the expectations vs. actual table). Leave space at the bottom of the document for both of you to sign your names, underscoring your agreement. Your signatures are not meant to suggest any legal significance. It is simply a symbolic gesture that lets the employee know that although she is the one who must close the gaps, you’re willing to be her partner in the process.
Step 4. Force the employee to choose to change––or not.
Tell the employee to go home and decide whether or not she is willing and able to close the gaps. Tell her you expect a yes or no answer first thing the following day, then schedule a time early the next morning when the two of you will meet and you will hear her decision.
Explain that you will only accept a yes or no answer. Make it clear that you will not accept yes with qualifiers like “yes, if” or “yes, but.” Tell her that if she comes back with a qualified yes, you’ll consider her answer a no.
Inform her that if she answers yes, the two of you will move forward in the change process. Don’t worry about explaining that process to her at this point. If she asks, say something like, “We’ll discuss the process if you choose to change. Right now, I’m asking you to make your decision and let me know what it is tomorrow morning.”
Tell the employee that if her answer is no, you will initiate the process of determining her future with the firm. If she asks what possibilities that may include, respond with something like, “That will not be my decision. If you decide you’re unwilling or unable to change, I will confer with my manager and HR to determine the next appropriate step.
You are trying to present two clear choices to the employee: choose to change or choose to remain the same. You are also clarifying the consequences of each choice.
This should be a three-minute conversation. Don’t allow the employee to derail the talk by getting you to answer a lot of questions or listen to her justifications for her gaps. She is the one who has a question to answer, not you. By keeping it short, she will have little opportunity to resist and will get the message that you expect a definitive answer the following morning.
Step 5. Receive and test the employee’s answer.
When you meet the next morning to hear the employee’s answer, try to decipher if she is being genuine. If her answer is no, your next step is simply to get your manager and HR involved to advise you on the proper response.
If her answer is yes, you need to test that yes by asking questions such as, “How did you come to the decision that you can and will change?” and “What is different today than it was when we discussed your performance in the past and you failed to make the changes I’d requested?”
It’s been my experience that most employees led through this process will return with a sincere yes. Ultimately, if the employee says yes, you are obligated to take him at his word. That said, it’s still useful to get a sense of how sincere her commitment to change is.
Step 6. Make it clear that yes means yes. There will be no going back.
Let the employee know that if he commits to change and moves forward in the process, there are no second chances. This is it. Make sure he understands that failing to deliver on any of the commitments you have established together will end the process and force you to involve your manager and HR to determine the next steps.
Step 7. Instruct the employee to create a plan for closing her gaps.
Give the employee the following assignment: develop a detailed plan describing exactly how she intends to close her performance and/or behavior gaps. When you speak, make sure to always use “your”: “your gaps,” “your behaviors,” “your performance,” “your plan,” etc. You want the employee to be responsible for her plan, and that language sends the unmistakable message that she is.
Give her no more than five days to complete the plan and return, ready to review it with you. Put the review meeting on your calendars before ending this conversation.
Step 8. Offer coaching support.
This conversation is the optimum moment to offer the employee coaching support. The support can come from HR, an internal mentor, or an external performance coach.
Before reaching this point, offering coaching would have been ineffective and likely declined by the employee. But now that he is committed and chosen to change, he is more likely to accept, listen to, and act on coaching. Moreover, if the employee finds the coach a valuable asset as he creates his plan for closing his gaps, he’ll be more open to coaching throughout the rest of the process.
If the employee declines coaching, it’s a red flag that he’s not sincerely ready and willing to change. In my experience, employees who decline to be coached are not genuinely committed to change and are unlikely to complete this process successfully.
Step 9. Test and approve the plan.
Test the employee’s proposed plan by discussing each gap-closing strategy and promised action to assure that, if carried out, the gap will be closed to your satisfaction. Remember: you’re the one who will decide if the plan is acceptable. Do not move on to the next step until you are confident that as long as it’s well-executed, the plan will create the behavior and/or performance that meets your expectations.
Step 10. Put the employee on notice.
By “on notice,” I do not necessarily mean formal company probation––although that tactic can be effective. Here, the main purpose of the “on notice” designation is to establish a limited amount of time to execute his plan.
A good rule of thumb: whatever time period you give should put the employee under pressure to get the plan executed sooner rather than later. The point is to send the message that you expect his gaps to be closed as quickly as possible.
My experience is the managers who give the employee 30 days to make the changes are more likely to get positive results than those who allow three months.
Consider restricting the employee’s authority and activities during the notice period. For example: “I do not want want you to approve any designs during this period. I need to be assured that you’ve closed your gaps before I will be comfortable giving you that authority.”
Lastly, do not end this discussion without you and the employee agreeing what he will accomplish concerning his plan during the first week. Schedule a meeting to check the status of the process in one week.
Step 11. Schedule regular status updates.
Schedule weekly or, if necessary, more frequent meetings during which the employee will deliver status updates. If she has failed to follow through on any commitments, let her know that you are ending the process and will get with your manager and HR to determine next steps. This is why Step 6 is so critical: if you’ve completed Step 6 as it’s outlined here, then an employee not meeting a commitment she agreed to uphold is a clear signal that she is unwilling or unable to change, and there is no reason to invest any more time and energy in the process.
If she has met all her commitments, thank her and express your appreciation for her willingness to change. Say something like, “Thank you for your willingness to listen to my feedback and put in the effort to make these changes. I’m pleased that you’ve taken ownership of your performance and are taking steps to make the necessary improvements.”
Before ending the meeting, agree what she will accomplish in the coming week and schedule your next update session. Repeat this step until all the employee’s gaps have been closed to your satisfaction.
If the employee closes only a portion of the gaps within the timeframe you’ve allowed, you will have to decide whether she deserves more time or not. My experience is that managers who give more time come to regret that decision and end up having to deal with the employee’s performance issues later on.
Additionally, although this process should be completely confidential between you, your employee, your manager, and possibly HR, let’s be realistic: employees often talk about what’s going on with their peers. This raises the stakes a bit. If you do not stick to your guns, other employees may interpret that choice as you not being serious about people meeting your expectations.
Step 12. Declare the employee has changed.
If the employee executes his plan successfully and closes his behavior and/or performance gaps, it is just as important that he be acknowledged and appreciated for the accomplishment as it is for his new way of being and behaving to become part of his own self-image. You want him to recognize that he is no longer in the process of changing––he’s emerged as a person who has changed.
Accomplish this self-image shift by declaring to the employee that he is now what’s he’s been working to become. Say something like, “You’re no longer a person working to get good at leading effective meetings. You are a person who leads effective meetings. Going forward, I want you to see yourself that way. You’ve earned the right to be seen that way.”
This is so important. A person can never outperform his self-image. Moreover, if you can help the employee’s self-image to comprise the changes he has made in himself, it will assure that he stays that person. From then on, he’ll be the monitor of his behavior and performance, freeing you up to focus on other priorities.
After a successful transformation, everyone wins. The organization will benefit, gaining an especially loyal employee in place of the drain that was there before. The employee will emerge stronger and more self-aware. And you will have an engaged team member and the distinct satisfaction that only comes with knowing you helped someone help himself.
GREAT article, Cort. Thanks!
Thanks Joe. I am glad you found it valuable.
Excellent play by play of what I experienced several years ago. I am grateful that I said Yes to Step 6. It has made all the difference.
I know what you mean, Michael. Setting boundaries like the one described in Step 6 is simple but so powerful.