Strategy & Leadership

How to Coach a Poor Performer to Comeback Success

Jane nailed the interview and her references checked out, so you extended the offer and she came on board. She was enthusiastic and friendly, but it’s rapidly becoming clear that Jane just isn’t as great as you thought she would be. In fact, you’d put her squarely in the poor performer category.

At this point, many managers do one of two things: Fire the poor performer, or give up hope and assign the important tasks to her coworkers.

There’s a better way — and that’s coaching an employee to improve. Now, if you make the effort and it’s still clear that Jane can’t do the work, then you can let her go with a clear conscience. But chances are, with proper coaching, you can salvage her job.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Just what is Jane’s problem? Is she not understanding company protocols? Does she lack the actual skills to do the job? Is it a customer service issue? Is it that she doesn’t pay attention? Is she lacking attention to detail?

Write down the actual problem. (Yes, write it down.) Sometimes someone just isn’t doing a good job, but you can’t put your finger on why that is. Keep working at it until you figure it out. For a particularly egregious case, there may be more than one problem — she’s both abrasive and ignores detail, for instance. If there are multiple issues, rank them in order of importance and tackle the most important one first.

Step 2: Talk Directly about the Issue

You’re the manager and your job is to manage. That means having the hard conversations. Use plain and clear language. Here are some sample approaches:

“Jane, I need to talk to you about your performance. Three times this week, I had to call a customer and solve a problem you should have solved.”

“Jane, I appreciate that at your old company they did things one way, but here we do them another way. You need to stick to our company guidelines. Let’s sit down and go over them.”

“Jane, last week I trained you on X, and Steve trained you on Y. You passed the written tests on both, but this week you made mistakes on the basics. Let’s talk about what happened.”

“Jane, you’ve been interrupting your coworkers during staff meetings. That behavior has to stop. Everyone gets a chance to speak, so don’t worry about being heard.”

Step 3: Let Her Say Her Piece

There may be more to Jane’s story than meets the eye, and a good manager always listens. Truly listen — don’t just hear the words, think about what she says. Steve could have made a mistake while training her. Katie could be constantly interrupting people in staff meetings too, but you’re used to it, so you don’t notice.

Step 4: Set Clear Requirements

Don’t be vague. Say “Don’t interrupt your coworkers during staff meetings” instead of “be polite in staff meetings.” Or, “Go through the three-step process outlined in your handbook for resolving customer complaints before escalating them” instead of “don’t escalate so many calls.”

Step 5: Follow up

Once you’ve had this conversation, you need to come back to it again and again, until the problem is solved. Address the issue when she does it wrong and praise the heck out of her when she does it right. “Jane, it was great how you resolved that complaint yesterday. I’m impressed!” or “Three days with zero corrections. You’re doing great! Keep going!” Positive feedback lets your employee know she’s making progress.

Miracles can happen. Often employees only need proper attention to straighten up and fly right. Give it a try and not only will your problem employee improve, but it will make the whole team function more smoothly.

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