“What’s the Problem?” – 5 Questions to ask an Underperforming Employee

“What’s the Problem?” – 5 Questions to ask an Underperforming Employee

One of the most challenging tasks for any manager is how to handle employee underperformance.  This could be a general team issue where the whole group seems to be demotivated and underperforming.  More likely, however, the issue will relate to one or maybe two individuals in particular.  

Most managers would prefer not to have to sit down and have what can potentially be a difficult and even emotional conversation.  In this vein, the usual starting point is to try and rationalise the individual’s behaviour, and work out why they are underperforming.  

 

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You may look for external reasons, i.e. those factors over which you (and the individual) have limited control:

“The client Sarah is dealing with is known to be difficult.”

“The deadline they gave Harry was just unreasonable”

These reasons can be reassuring as they are usually short-term, and don’t necessarily reflect on the person’s general competence or day to day way of working.  

Or, you may wonder if the reason for underperformance is ‘internal’ and to do with the individual themselves: 

“John is always in too much of a hurry.  He rushes and makes mistakes.”

“Rachel struggles to say what she means and this causes confusion.”

Or, you may (quietly!) wonder if the problem is a little closer to home.  As a manger, you yourself set the tone for your team and if you are, for e.g. arriving late, neglecting deadlines, or just generally under-performing yourself, then you cannot really expect your staff to do any different!  The good news, however, is that this one is usually easy to fix and often just a simple case of making a conscious effort to ‘be the change you want to see’.

If, however, the issue is more to do with your style of management, then that can be a little more challenging and we will look more closely at this below. 

The majority of team and staff issues will probably be a mixture of both internal and external factors.  Most people have aspects of their job which they do not like and prefer to either rush to get the thing over with, or put off completely.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses; some of us are great organisers and some of us are dreadful at prioritising. In an ideal world every person’s job would play only to their strengths.  Unfortunately, this is not often the case and most of us will have to deal with things that we may dislike, or even absolutely loathe.  

The team themselves may find it challenging to work together.  Again, in an ideal world, all teams would be made up of colleagues who bond well together and enjoy each other’s company.  In reality, people are more complicated, and some people will find it easier to work with colleagues, than others. Some people may just hate working as a team even when they actually quite like their colleagues on an individual level!  

The bottom line is that, as a manager, if a colleague’s performance has got to the stage where you have identified a specific internal or external factor which is affecting their performance, then you probably do need to speak to them.  So pull up a chair, and prepare yourself. These coaching style questions may help: 

How have you been feeling about your own performance lately? 

What opportunities can you see for us to help you improve or develop?

This is a good starting point for any difficult discussion.  It immediately allies any fears the person might have that you are going to seek to have them redeployed, and lets them know that you want them to continue in the role.  The chances are that they themselves will welcome the chance to talk. They will almost certainly know their job better than you and can usually identify their own areas of weakness.  You could discuss these – remembering to be supportive and not overly-critical with the weaknesses – and together come up with a plan on how they can develop and improve, with a date for review.  

Is your role fully utilising your skills and experience?  Where do you think there is a gap or a challenge?

This question could be aimed at someone who is either having a specific challenge with an aspect of their role or, maybe someone who has been in the role for some time and seems to be losing interest.  

A colleague who has been doing the same role for a while may just be bored, and perhaps making mistakes as a consequence of that, and in need of a new challenge.  Someone who is struggling with one aspect may need a learning or training course, or, if the issue is a real challenge – for example. if the colleague feels they struggle with nerves or anxiety and each person is expected to stand up and talk in team meetings, then perhaps this could be reviewed?  The key is to get to what the issue actually is and decide whether it is possible to work with it, or whether it needs to be reviewed or changed completely.  

Is it clear what’s required for this role?

This question is useful if someone has recently taken on a new role, started working for a new manager, or been promoted.  They may not fully realise what is expected of them. It is a good introduction into discussing how they are finding the new situation, any challenges or things they had not expected, and looking at any areas for development.   

It is helpful for the colleague to see that their manager takes an interest, and they may simply need reassurance or an opportunity to discuss how things have changed.  

Is the level of quality that’s required for this work clear?  How best can I clarify the level of quality that’s expected?

This is a simple question for when someone’s work is below par.  There could be any number of reasons for this. As above, they may simply be bored, or if they have just been promoted or are working with a new team, then they may not realise what is expected.  

Sometimes the problem may be unrelated to work.  Perhaps the individual is going through a challenging time at home?   

This is an opportunity to reassure your team member that you want to work with them, and support them.  You could clarify the role or job spec if necessary and use this as a lead in, if appropriate, to suggesting new responsibilities, training, or maybe even a few days away from the role?  

In all circumstances, at this stage, it is important to reiterate that you want to support them and help them get over this bump. 

Do you find my management style challenging? Does my tone come off the wrong way? Do you feel that I micromanage you/do not give you enough support?

By the time you sit down to ask this question, you will usually have a good idea if the issue is a simple personality clash between you and your team member.  These are never easy to deal with, particularly as a manager when (you are being told that) you yourself are the issue!  

Often the roots are in simple misunderstandings about what is expected from both parties, or issues with communication and communication styles.   

It is important that these sorts of issues are dealt with early and, where possible, informally.  In a bigger company it can be tempting to involve HR or a third party. CIPD studies, however, suggest that smaller companies have a much better track record with dealing with managerial conflict simply because they do it quickly and only with the individuals involved.  

The best advice for these sorts of discussions is for the manager to actively listen.  It can be tempting to jump in defensively, when you hear, “you never listen to me properly!” but if you try and stay calm, let the individual speak, and make notes (with their permission) you really do stand a better chance of resolving the matter – and in this instance demonstrating that you are actually listening to them!

Sometimes change can act as a catalyst for staff upset, particularly when a new manager takes over an existing team.  People are naturally suspicious and may have got used to doing things in a certain way which is now about to be changed. 

For the manger involved, it can sometimes be worth getting a the view of a neutral third party, if and where possible, and asking them to honestly comment on the situation.  Maybe the team member is right – maybe you do ‘never listen’!

Try and remain level-headed and pragmatic with these discussions, and make sure they are followed up in writing and with a clear review date.  

What are your biggest challenges as a manager?  How do you deal with difficult conversations? Let me know! 

 

Groupwork – what's the point?

Some of love it, some of us loathe it, very few of us are ambivalent!

I must confess that on a personal level, when I attend training sessions as a delegate, I’m not a massive fan of groupwork.  Generally I find it quite stressful and prefer to just listen to the training and learn what I’m there to learn.

But we’re all different and some people really enjoy it.  They find it a good way of getting to know new people and picking up useful first hand information in in relation to specific shared interests.  

What’s the Point of Groupwork?

From a professional trainer’s point of view, I’m ambivalent about the merits of groupwork.  I can see the value of asking delegates to practise, in groups, a specific skill I might be showing them.  I can also see that group practise and pair-sharing is very useful if we’re working towards a test or exam.   But for general information gaining or knowledge building type talks or training sessions, I’m less convinced of its value other than to allow the trainer a short break, obviously.

Icebreakers

I feel the same way about icebreakers – the bit at the start of each session where you have to find out three interesting things about the person sitting next to you.  It’s reasonable and useful to ask people to introduce themselves, but I’m not convinced of the merits of the accompanying activity!

Now, I appreciate that some of this may make me sound a little churlish, and just to be clear, I am aware that it’s horses for courses.  A group of aspiring sales professionals may well relish the thought of getting stuck into some group work (particularly if there is a slightly competitive element to it!).  It can also be a very good way of putting teams together. Each person has their own dynamic and a trainer has the opportunity to see how different personalities gel and work together.

But in my experience, more people dislike it than enjoy it.  I am sure I have once heard a comedian say that the two most hated words in the English language are, ‘audience participation’.

Diversity Matters

There’s also the very important point that not everyone is neurotypical.  For someone on the autism spectrum the anxiety associated with having to join in with group or pair work with someone they don’t know can be quite crippling (hence at CHP events we deliberately avoid group work for this reason).


So all in all, for any fellow trainers or L&D professionals who are reading this, I would ask them to carefully consider any group work or convoluted icebreakers which might be included in a training session:

  • Are they really relevant?
  • Are they useful?  Can you easily explain why you’ve included them?
  • If they’re there for a reason, how are you benchmarking their success?  How will you know if they’ve achieved their stated purpose?
  • Is there an alternative activity for those who would prefer to work alone?

After all, sometimes there’s a lot to be said for taking time to quietly reflect on what you’ve been listening to, and making space to think things through properly!

Why is ‘manager’ a dirty word?

If I type the word ‘leadership’ into Google, within a nanosecond my screen is full of blue headlines like:

“Study for a High Impact Leadership Course”

“Leadership Development”

“Future Leaders Get Ahead Now!”

“Good Leadership …”

If I then search for, ‘good leader’, Google goes into overdrive with potential results for me.

But if I type in, ‘good manager’ then very little comes up – with the exception of the rather dismissive, “7 Things Great Leaders Always Do (but Mere Managers Always Fear)” …  mere managers, eh?

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CEOs are always leaders, but the Head Coach of any football team, even when it’s someone like Sir Alex Feguson or Pep Guardiola, is a ‘mere manager’.  We don’t talk about, ‘football leaders’, do we? Is this because, in England at least, we still cannot comprehend a working class sport like football attracting ‘leaders’?

When I studied for my MA, I spent a whole semester studying and writing about ‘leadership’ even though my actual degree was in ‘management’.

So clearly, ‘leadership’ is something aspirational, but management seems to be just taken for granted.

Why are we so obsessed with turning managers into leaders?

Many people (and I’ve worked with plenty of them) are perfectly good managers in the sense that they oversee the workload, get the job done efficiently and on time, and make sure the team are content on a day to day basis.  But it’s not enough any more. During one of my last forays into corporate life I recall attending a meeting about staff development, and listening to the dazzling array of short courses on to which I could send my team. All of the courses purported to turn them into inspiring leaders who would bring passion, positivity and innovation, back to the office after a three hour workshop on the topic.

But why would they need to be able to do this?  Who would they be inspiring? And really, how much passion and innovation is actually possible for most routine office work?

Why is Leadership Important?

Now I’m not for a moment knocking the concept of ‘leadership’.  It is important.

I wrote a blog piece a while ago about how taken we all were with Gareth Southgate’s leadership of the England football team during the last World Cup.  The point being that Southgate didn’t just ‘manage’ them, he gave them a vision and belief. It was refreshing to see and he in fact took England further into the World Cup than they had been for many years.

And it’s very obvious when leadership is bereft; I suspect a lot of the UK would agree that our government (across all the parties) has been woefully lacking in leadership in relation to the Brexit negotiations over the last few years.

My point is more that leadership and management are two quite distinct skills.

At a very basic level, leaders take the army into battle, and managers make sure the guns are loaded and they all have enough to eat.  They are two separate disciplines and one cannot function without the other.

A perfectly good manager may well find themselves completely out of their depth in a leadership role, and a dynamic leader probably won’t have the focus to deal with the routine and minutiae of management.

I do wonder if, in our Instagram filled lives today, we have become so imbued with reaching for the stars and having it all, that #LivingMyBestLife can only be defined in images of power and greatness.  It used to be said that behind every great man there was a great woman. I think the modern version of this would be that behind every great leader, is a great manager. Nelson Mandela couldn’t have published The Long Walk to Freedom without help of his office management team!

Perhaps it’s time to return to showing some respect for the unsung heroes of working life, the day to day managers who get the job done, look after the team, communicate the Leader’s vision, and create the space to make it happen.  And if you have a really good manager, appreciate them.

After all, while staff will often stick by a weak leader, they very rarely stay with a poor manager.

 

Does Public Speaking Spook You? 6 Strategies to Help Exorcise your Fears.

  • Do the words “public speaking” cause fear and anxiety in your normally cheerful and confident mind?
  • Does the thought of speaking in front of a group evoke fear, make you sweat, and get your heart pounding?

Well, if so, you’re not alone! Public Speaking (aka ‘glossophobia’) affects up to 75% of the UK population, and is the country’s second most common fear.

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I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to a delegate who shared that the thought of standing up and speaking in front of people was his absolute nightmare.  This gentleman was a senior manager and openly admitted that while he enjoyed his job, liked and trusted his colleagues, he would mentally freak at the thought of having to give a presentation or a speech in front of them.

An acquaintance who also dreads public speaking described the fear as, “paralysing”. The thing that bothered him most was the actual standing in front of an audience bit. He didn’t necessarily mind explaining a point in front of a meeting group, but he froze the second he thought he thought he had to stand up on stage in front of people.

When I did my PGCE, along with most of my cohort, I felt that the very best teachers were the ones who really did come alive in the spotlight.  Surprisingly, there were in fact very few of us who loved that particular element of teaching. We didn’t mind it but, given a choice, most of us preferred teaching to smaller groups away from standing up in front of the class.

On a personal level, given my own career choice, it’s fair to say that speaking in front of a packed room isn’t something that bothers me. (If we were to be discussing ‘heights’ then that would be a different matter!)   As above, I don’t particularly relish the spotlight or thrive on the attention, and I am usually nervous before I start speaking. Once started though, I get into my flow and I enjoy it. I know at least two other professional trainers who say the same thing.

So what does this suggest?  Well, maybe that very few people are natural born public speakers?

When asked to name great speakers, a quick straw poll of colleagues produces some familiar names; Martin Luther King , Barrack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey.  There were also a few less obvious ones like Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher. While the ‘obvious’ names are, well, obvious, the other names which sometimes come up, such as e.g. Stormzy, are more of a natural reflection of someone’s age and political persuasion.  We discuss this in detail on my Presentation Skills Training days and pick apart what exactly makes someone great, and another person less so.

Public speaking expert, Caroline Goyder, says that to be a great speaker there should be three things present.  These can be summarised as:

·      Expertise – your audience needs to believe that you fully understand what are you are talking about.  Either you are a proven expert in the subject, or it is something you have personally experienced.

·      Passion – you have to be enthusiastic about your subject.  The audience needs to feel like you want to speak to them and share your knowledge.

·      Authenticity –  your audience has to feel that you believe what you are saying to them. .  We often see politicians criticised for being ‘shifty’ or more bluntly ‘outright lying’!  This happens when we don’t believe that they are being honest with us. They lack authenticity.

So to return to our list of great speakers, I often refer to Martin Luther King in training days, and I still believe his ‘I have a Dream‘ speech is the watermark for great oratory.

Why?

I think it is because it checks the three elements I have listed above. Dr King was both an African-American living with racism and also an academic so he was therefore an expert when he spoke about civil rights.  In that speech he references his own family and his own experiences which clearly demonstrates his authenticity. He believes what he is telling us. The passion goes without saying, and this is probably one of the most memorable elements of that speech.

Former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s speech denouncing terrorism at her party’s conference the morning after the Brighton Bombing is notable.  Again, it contains the three elements which Caroline Goyder says we need: it is authentic – the bomb was an attempt to assassinate the PM and her colleagues; it is passionate – she is clearly angry, disgusted, and no doubt frightened by what has just happened; and she is undoubtedly an expert by virtue of her political and personal experience of terrorism.

So now we know what makes a great speech, how can we start using this ourselves?  What if you’re still terrified of getting up on stage, or quaking at the thought of drying up in front of your work colleagues?  While very few of us will ever be called upon to make speeches like Mrs Thatcher’s or Dr King’s (or even Adolf Hitler’s). We can still employ some of Goyder’s elements for success.  Admittedly, it may seem a little challenging to evoke strong feelings when talking about, for example, health and safety at work but we can still try our best with what we have!

Here are some personal strategies which I use to deliver a great talk:

·      If you are really petrified of standing in front of a crowd of people is there another way you can deliver your talk?  Few managers will want you to be in a situation where you are terrified. Could the talk be delivered to smaller groups, around a table (so you don’t have to stand) or even via Zoom or Skype?

·      Think beforehand about what you want your audience to come away with in terms of knowledge or training?  Focus on two or three learning objectives and this will give you a framework around which to base your talk.

·      Prepare, prepare, prepare!!  If you do nothing else, please do this!  I cannot over-emphasise the need for proper preparation.  Sort out all your handouts, notes, and visuals (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc) the day before.

·      If you are really nervous, consider ditching the visuals completely.  They are just something else to potentially go wrong, and nervous speakers usually end up completely focussing on the screen and reading from the slides neither of which makes for a great learning or presenting experience.  Have some written bullet points or a mindmap in front of you instead.

·      Rehearse your timings in advance. Time often goes a lot quicker than you think it will once you start talking, so make sure you have extra material or an activity in reserve just in case.

·      Try not talk for more than 20 minutes at a time.  Break up the talk with an activity or coffee break.  If you’re nervous this will also help you break your talking time down into shorter chunks so it won’t feel like such an ordeal.

Finally, it’s easier said than done but try and relax!  Your audience want you to succeed. And remember, both Barrack Obama and Margaret Thatcher were each once told that they would never make a great speakers.  While few of us will ever be ‘great’, most of us can work towards being ‘good’!

Could your Presentation Skills do with turbocharging? Or maybe just tweaking a little? Why not pop along to one of my Presentation Skills Training morning workshops? Contact me for for more details. 

Tone, Timbre & Coca Cola … or ‘how to find the right tone for your voice’!

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It was UCLA academic Albert Mehrabian who taught us that good communication is made up of three parts:

  • Words
  • Body language; and 
  • Tone of voice

I lead learning groups in both presentation skills and autism support.  Within these sessions, we spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we may need to tailor our communication if the receiver has a barrier to their understanding – as in the case of an autistic person.  Or, if we ourselves are a little unsure about the communication – as with someone who is new to public speaking or writing for an audience.

Most of us are familiar with the concept that how we say something is as important – if not more so – than what we actually say. 

“Timbre” refers to the quality of the sound we make.  If we’re describing a person’s voice as: harsh, soft, rough, silky, breathy, raspy.  Each of those adjectives could refer to the timbre. The timbre of the Glasgow accent is very different from the timbre of the Birmingham accent.  And the timbre often conveys a particular tone, which is where it really get interesting.  

“Tone” refers to the character of the voice. The tone you use is the impression you wish to convey with your speech: brisk, businesslike, authoritative, vulnerable, or friendly.  Each of these words may describe the tone of a person’s written or spoken communication.  

Tone isn’t just restricted to the spoken word.  Your written communication has a tone, as does the overall feel and message of the thing you wish to communicate.  

Even a brand can have a tone.  

I worked for advertising giant, McCanns, back in the 1990s.  At this time one of the agency’s clients was Coca-Cola, and I recall hours being spent crafting the unique tone of the brand’s messaging.  Spend a moment thinking about Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans, e.g. ‘have a Coke and a smile’, or ‘you can’t beat the feeling’. These words all evoke feelings of happiness, friendship, sunshine, and so on.  Even more so because within Coca-Cola’s advertising, the taste of the drink itself is very rarely mentioned. The tone and message is conveyed through facial expressions and smiles. Now this is no accident! Coca-Cola’s (and their advertisers’!) amazing success demonstrates just how powerful the tone we use in our communication is, and how words by themselves are just one part of this. 

So how can we make sure that we get our own tone right, and convey the message we intend?  I would start with:

  • Being sincere.  
  • Be authentic. 
  • Being confident. 

I have put these three together as it’s hard to have one without the other two.  If you are confident in the message you’re delivering, and you really believe it, you will usually come across as authentic and sincere.  There is nothing wrong with being a little nervous when speaking (or writing!) for the first time, and being self-aware is no bad thing and won’t detract from clear sincerity.  But trying to convince an audience of something that you yourself don’t really believe, rarely works. In public speaking your body language will tell a different story from the words you are using, and a fake or false tone is hard to maintain in regular written communication.  

Mind your language – don’t use discriminatory language (even in jest), mild profanity or blasphemy.  You will offend people – trust me, you will! Humour is a very personal thing and it’s difficult to get the tone right with it.  Even more so if the joke you are trying to make is about a potentially sensitive matter. I always think it’s best just to steer clear! 

Avoid jargon – most people hate it.  In particular ‘management course speak’ .e.g. “Reaching out”, “touch base offline”, and so on.  

Finish with a sense-check.  Do you really understand what you’re about to say, or what you have written?  Really? Could you summarise it all in one or two sentences for a five year old child?  To paraphrase Albert Einstein, there is nothing so complicated that even a small child cannot understand it if it’s explained properly.  

If you can’t summarise your message in this way, then you may need to take another look at your work and refine it.  Generally, the more complicated the message, the more likely that the tone you wish to convey will get lost beneath the ‘fluff’.  The simpler you keep things, the easier it is to keep the tone you want. 

And finally, let your own personality shine through.  If you’re a friendly and informal type of person, then it’s going to be difficult to maintain a cool and uber-distanced tone (remember what we said about being authentic?)  It’s far easier and more natural to work with your own personality, and maintain professionalism by being respectful to your listener or reader and, as above, avoiding unnecessary jargon, slang, or potentially offensive language. 

I hope this is helpful and I would love to hear any of your thoughts about how to keep the tone right in your spoken or written communication!