What’s a manager supposed to do when a team member doesn’t follow proper procedures, puts the company at risk, then lies about it or refuses to accept responsibility?
Most managers would say, “Fire them!” However, could certain leadership practices prevent the situation from reaching that point? Let’s investigate.
A construction client told me about a problem employee whom we’ll call Frank. Frank would routinely write technical reports and send them directly to the client without having them reviewed by someone else, which was against company policy. Not only would he circumvent the policy, sometimes he would add someone else’s digital signature to make it appear like they had reviewed it. Frank would use language in the report such as “always” or “guaranteed,” which could become a serious legal liability for the company. He would even make a point of saving the reports on his own personal drive instead of the common drive where they were supposed to be saved, presumably to hide what he was doing. Moreover, when his manager confronted him with discrepancies between his report and what was actually occurring on the job site, he wouldn’t admit to any wrongdoing and would sometimes even lie to cover his tracks.
Frank’s manager had addressed Frank’s deceitful, dodgy behavior several times before the full scope of his misconduct came to light. Her manager intervened to outline his concerns to Frank in an email and require him to respond with a plan to comply with their process and standards going forward. Frank could see the walls closing in on him, so he quit and left his manager to clean up the huge mess he left.
Clearly, Frank should have been fired long ago, but did things have to reach this point? Is there anything Frank’s managers could have done to turn Frank’s performance around or make it easier to fire him much sooner?
Here are three practices that managers can apply now to not only address poor performance, but also to help elevate the performance of all employees.
1. Agree on Expectations of Each Other
Virtually every relationship breakdown—at work or otherwise—can be traced back to unmet expectations. Managers become frustrated with employees who don’t meet their expectations, but often it’s because those expectations were never clearly articulated.
Likewise, employees who feel their manager or employer aren’t living up to their expectations of fair and respectful treatment may retaliate in passive-aggressive ways.
Unmet expectations break relationships.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix! Managers can avoid a lot of disappointment and friction if they simply meet with each of their direct reports to discuss expectations. The question each person should ask the other is:
“What do you need from me to be successful and enjoy your work?”
Here are some example expectations a manager and an employee might agree to.
· Meet Deadlines. Once you agree to a deadline, I expect you to do everything you can to meet it. If you don’t think you can meet a deadline, tell me well ahead of time, so we can work together to try to make it.
· Follow Procedures. Some tasks are so important that we established procedures to reduce the chance of error. Follow them every time. If a procedure isn’t working for you, tell me, so we can try to improve it.
· Take Ownership. Follow through on your assignments. My job is to help you work through obstacles, not take over. Admit your mistakes, so you can learn from them. It’s fine to acknowledge constraints, but focus on solutions.
· Feedback. I expect you to tell me if you see me doing something that is counterproductive or if I do something that bothers you. I will never reprimand you for trying to help me improve or to improve our relationship.
· Clear Direction. Explain the “why” behind requests. Set clear timelines and standards of performance.
· Training. Don’t expect me to know how to do things I’ve never done before. Give me proper training if you want me to achieve desired outcomes. Provide examples, templates, or procedures for important tasks.
· Autonomy. Specify my decision-making authority and be flexible about when and where I do my work. Then trust me to use my time wisely to get it done.
· Increasing Responsibility. If I am getting my work done well, keep giving me more challenging work to advance my career, and help me move less challenging work elsewhere.
· Feedback/Recognition. Please tell me how you truly feel about my work, and make sure to recognize good performance so I can know what to aim for next time.
When managers and employees agree to expectations such as the ones above, it makes it easier to address unmet expectations. Here’s the key: expectations must be written and kept in a shared location for them to be of use. It’s impossible to rely on expectations when you are going by memory.
In Frank’s case, when he kept circumventing procedures, there should have been consequences. A question his manager might have asked is, “What should happen, Frank, if you don’t follow proper procedures again?” Like a good parent, managers must discuss consequences in advance and then follow through with them.
Any behavior that looks sneaky or dishonest should be immediately called out as such. Repeated breaches of trust should be dealt with quickly, directly, and firmly.
Many managers and HR professionals only think to clarify expectations with employees once a problem occurs. When managers clarify expectations up front and give team members the opportunity to do the same, it facilitates feedback and mitigates friction points before they happen.
2. Meet Regularly One on One
You can’t hold others accountable for results if you don’t meet with them regularly. The word “regularly” means a recurring meeting in the calendar, not the usual day-to-day communication to ask and answer questions. In-person one on ones are ideal, and virtual works great too when in-person isn’t practical.
There’s a big difference between day-to-day communication and regular one on ones. Here are a few things that can happen during regular one on ones that don’t happen during everyday communication.
1. Follow-up. When an employee knows they must provide a face-to-face status update on assignments by a certain date, something magical happens: stuff gets done. Deadlines and face-to-face communication are great motivators.
2. Process Improvement. Discuss the root cause of problems instead of just fighting fires. Brainstorm ways to work smarter and improve processes to reduce errors and achieve better results.
3. Feedback. Provide each other with feedback about how well you are meeting each other’s expectations.
4. Celebrate Successes. Take a moment to reflect on recent wins and achievements. Point out the specific things the team member did that contributed to the success. Ask them what they learned from the experience.
5. Coaching. Team members who keep struggling with a certain task or responsibility need a manager who cares about them enough to investigate it together. When managers approach potential performance problems with patience and without judgment, they usually discover that all that’s required is a little training, demonstration, or discussing how to approach the problem next time. Carving out time for one-on-one coaching can save countless wasted hours fixing preventable mistakes or dealing with unnecessary turnover.
6. Wellness Check-in. Most managers are blindsided when an employee drops a resignation letter on their desk. But when managers take a moment to ask their team members how they are doing physically and emotionally, they might receive a response that they can do something about. Nothing else matters if an employee isn’t physically or emotionally well. Their work will inevitably suffer as a result.
These items don’t need to be addressed during each meeting, but they should be discussed regularly.
Find a consistent time that works for both of you, then put it on the calendar. Do your best not to cancel or be late; otherwise, you are sending a clear message that the other person is a low priority.
Ideally, managers should spend thirty minutes of scheduled one on one time with each team member each week. However, managers with larger teams may need to meet with each employee every two weeks. Managers with more than ten team members should consider reducing their scope so they can spend more time leading and less time fighting fires.
It’s unlikely Frank would have gotten so far off track for so long if he met regularly one on one with his manager.
Check out my FREE whitepaper on one on one meetings.
Never address potential performance problems or friction points in an email or a text. This is a sure way of making the problem worse.
A retail client recently told me that a store manager emailed their human resources manager to tell them they wanted to fire an employee. The HR manager replied that the store manager didn’t provide a sufficient explanation for the request. This infuriated the store manager, who escalated the issue. After an onslaught of increasingly disrespectful emails, five people ended up meeting to sort out the mess. This wasted time and the ensuing bruised egos could have been avoided if the store manager or the HR manager had picked up the phone to discuss the issue instead of firing emails at each other.
Here is one rule that will dramatically improve workplace culture and performance:
Don’t give negative feedback in emails.
If you think someone might not like to hear what you want to tell them, speak to them face to face. A phone call may also work if an in-person or virtual meeting isn’t possible.
It’s that simple.
The reason people prefer addressing conflict through email is because it feels safer. Its one-way communication designed to avoid dialogue. Emails about friction points usually include assumptions and don’t give the other party the opportunity to correct misunderstandings. Furthermore, people feel comfortable putting nasty comments in emails that they would never say to another person’s face.
Email is great for some types of communication, but addressing friction points isn’t one of them.
For more on the subject, check out my article, No Negative Feedback in Emails.
Great Leadership Is About Habits & Practices
A lot of leadership literature focuses on personality characteristics or lofty, abstract concepts. In my experience, great leadership begins with one on one relationships and is demonstrated through a handful of powerful habits and practices.
1. Agree on Expectations of Each Other
2. Meet Regularly One on One
3. Address Performance Problems Face to Face
Do these three things, and watch the performance of those you lead improve, no matter how well they are currently performing.