How Much Safety Net Is Actually Necessary to Support Successful Performance?

One of my clients has been frustrated by a difficult situation that you may have experienced too: a decent but not great employee doesn’t meet expectations consistently. When my client gives this employee feedback, they do a little better for a while, but then fall back to their old ways again. To further complicate things, they seem to have lots of personal challenges but believe they’re doing fine — and they expect my client to think so too.

How much do you have to put into someone like this? Would it be better to let them go and replace them? Are you obligated to provide extra support and scaffolding forever?

Moving Beyond the PIP

In this particular case, the employee had been on a formal Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). The PIP was useful for its explicit expectations, which made the consequences of non-delivery clear, and the employee focused their attention on getting specific aspects of performance to an acceptable level. Their work actually improved, so it was clear that they had at least some of the necessary skills.

As soon as the employee demonstrated improvement and reached what should have been considered a new normal, though, they ran out of steam. It was as if hitting the new level was itself the goal, but the employee hadn’t committed to sustaining that level of focus, attention, and contribution over the long term.

Reexamine Your Expectations

What does a team member need to do to keep their manager from always feeling like they need to be babysat? A PIP, or other serious feedback, permits an opportunity to reset on both sides. If you treat it that way, you can often build a stronger relationship and nurture a more effective employee. 

So refresh the expectations you had for the PIP. Review what changed in the employee’s performance and what was more successful during the probationary time. Then ask the employee directly if they can see that their performance was better; if it was, what did they do differently to make it so? Let the employee know that they need to keep doing those new things to ensure a consistent and satisfactory performance.

Check to see if working conditions changed. Listen for any new circumstances or behaviors that can be continued and seek the team member’s agreement that this is the case. It’s worth emphasizing the importance of consistent, sustainable performance and letting the employee know that both you and their colleagues are relying on it.

Unfortunately, some people seem to deliver only when they’re under duress. Once the stringency of a PIP or warning has been lifted, they feel like they’ve cleared a hurdle and can relax again and return to their old ways. So make it clear that backsliding will be a significant disappointment. You can say something like, “I need to have confidence that you’re going to be able to sustain this level of delivery. Please review for me your understanding of what the satisfactory level of performance is, what you’ll need to do personally to sustain it, and whether there is ongoing support that you’ll need from me or others to be able to sustain it.”

Look at the Big Picture

It’s occasionally the case that an employee may need more of your attention than you’ve allocated either per person or for their function. It can be beneficial to address this directly: “I’ve noticed that when I check in with you every week rather than every other week, you seem to do better and get more done/work better with your colleagues/etc. But when I go back to the standard bi-weekly meetings, your deliverables/behaviors, etc., seem to slip. Have you noticed anything like that?”

But here’s the tricky part. It may not be practical to provide this extra attention over the long haul. Once you help this employee get up to desirable levels of delivery or collegiality, are there ways to help them persist even when you return to normal supervision? Or will they always need extra check-ins, tighter setting of priorities, help with triaging, and role-playing to coordinate with others? It’s definitely worth doing all this during the repair or remedial period, but after that, you’ll likely want the team member to be more self-managing.

On the one hand, is there anyone else on your team, besides this particular employee, who could do better if they got extra time and attention from you? If so, could you manage that level of attention for everyone in return for extra productivity? Maybe the extra effort and attention is worth is to you and to them.

On the other hand, even when you’re convinced that an employee is doing their best, if you suspect that they’ll always need extra supervision and scaffolding, then they probably won’t be able to meet standard expectations for the job. It may be time to counsel them out of the role into one for which they are better suited, or else remove them from the group altogether.

One for All or All for One?

You might open a dialog this way: “During the two months of the PIP, we worked together more closely than usual to get you stabilized. We know you can do this with extra support. Can you stay within our standard performance norms with less support? I want you to perform well and be comfortable in your job. I also want you to be more self-managing. Does that seem realistic and attainable to you? We need at least the level of performance you reached during the PIP — and we need that consistently, without as much time together as we’ve been spending to get you up to speed. Let’s talk about how you could keep delivering appropriately even if we’re not having such frequent check-ins.” 

You can’t adjust their lives for them; nor can you read their minds. But you can make plain what’s expected and what kinds of help and support can be accessed, whether those services or support come from you, from elsewhere in the company, or via a larger ecosystem of resources.

Of course you want to help everyone who works for you to do their best. But you also don’t want to feel that you’re tolerating incompetence or carrying someone and doing part of their work. After you’ve invested enough to ensure that an underperforming employee at least has a fair shot, you need to weigh the opportunity cost of spending so much time and attention on one person, its impact on the rest of your team, and whether it’s the right use of you as a resource.

Onward and upward —

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