How to manage an employee who has roller coaster performance

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Dear Joan:
I am a manager in financial services company. Most of the people on my staff are hard working and good performers. One of my employees has been with the organization for many years and has worked for me for less than four of those years. At best, her performance is up and down.
 
When I speak to her about it she improves for awhile. But over time (six months or so) she starts to slip again and gets careless, makes errors and starts putting off the work she doesn’t like to do. I know she can do the work since she improves when I get on her case about it. I spoke to her former manager and he said she has “always been like that.”
 
I hesitate to assign her some of the more interesting work that she says she is interested in because I hate to “reward” her when she isn’t performing up to standards on a consistent basis. On the other hand, maybe if I did give her more interesting work, she would improve her motivation.
 
Meanwhile, there are other members of the team who are ambitious and eager to take on more and I can count on them. I am starting to spend a lot more of my time pushing this one employee and it may be time to take stronger action. What do you think would be the right approach in this case?
 
Answer:
When you are spending a disproportionate amount of time trying to push a limp rope, rather than investing your time with the people who really deserve it, it’s time to ask the questions you are asking. I think it’s time to impose consequences that are meaningful and designed to call the question: Do you want the job or don’t you?
 
Schedule a meeting immediately the next time your employee falls off the wagon. Say, “You and I have talked about this several times in the past. You have always told me you would improve and you did—but I always seem to find myself back at the same place—having the same discussion with you. This is the last time we are going to have this conversation.” This opener should get her attention. Consequences are about to be imposed.
 
“I know you can do it. You’ve improved your performance when we’ve talked about it. But then you slip back. The real question may be do you really want this job? Is it a fit for you? If it takes this much effort to meet the minimum standards you have to be wondering that, too.”
 
“The bottom line is that it isn’t enough to improve for a little while. You have to improve and hold the gains. If you don’t, I fear it’s only fair to tell you what could happen. You could lose your job. I can’t keep spending time pushing you to do the tasks you should be accomplishing on your job. If you want more challenging work, do the job you’ve signed up for first, then we’ll talk about what’s next...”
 
Then spend some time discussing specific action steps she will take. Don’t settle for little incremental steps—you need to ask for what you really want, since you’ve thrown the gantlet down. Then don’t drop the ball. Follow up every week to see that she is doing what she committed to. This is your chance to get her off the merry-go-round—up and down. Stick to your standard. If you don’t, you can’t go back and do this all over again—your standards will be meaningless.
 
In the meantime, spend time and energy with the people who are doing the right things. Give them challenging assignments. Coach them and provide them with one-on-one attention. If you give your best employees an incentive for working hard, it will not only motivate them, it might provide a little motivation for this employee to strive for. If not, it may be time to help this employee move on.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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