Good leaders want to ensure their team is engaged in their work, feeling satisfied, and performing at their personal best. But for those team members who seem to be lagging behind, what can a concerned leader do to help improve employee performance.

We’ve all experienced that one team member who seems to perpetually miss deadlines, submit less than stellar work, or bring the morale down with their negative attitude. Once leaders recognise who this team member is, they want to re-engage them as quickly as possible. The idea being to keep the team moving forward. But what is the most efficient and positive performance improvement strategies?

Here are 7 strategies to improve employee performance.

1. Clarify the exact problem

Reprimanding a team member can be as unpleasant and stressful for the boss as it is for the person on the receiving end, and it’s often tempting for a leader to soften their overall message to avoid hurting the team member’s feelings. However, it is important to make sure that the team member walks away from the conversation with a very clear understanding of the area requiring improvement, and how they can go about fixing it.

Many leaders employ the “sandwich” method of feedback—positive, negative, positive—in order to make sure employees feel valued even as you’re asking them to up their game. But again, the team member should still understand exactly what areas they need to improve on and have a clear picture of what success in that area would look like. Plus, honesty is key. If you can’t think of anything that the team member is doing really well at, don’t make something up just to complete the feedback sandwich.

2. Field their criticisms

Be ready to listen to any critiques or suggestions that your team member might have. In fact, make a point of inviting feedback. If the team member genuinely believes that something about your performance as a leader, or one or more of their team members, is hindering his or her ability to succeed, you may be able to work together toward a common solution.

Listening to their concerns may also reveal a much easier solution to the problem at hand. Do they feel that their environment is too noisy, and could they be moved to a quieter area, for instance? You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

3. Individualize every approach

No one method of leadership and motivation will work for everyone. A good leader understands the diverse styles of their team members and tailors their coaching to each of their unique needs. For instance, if you know that an employee prefers straightforward communication and requires little supervision, don’t attempt to over explain projects or hold their hand through the process.

This goes for goal-setting as well. You should know who works best with regular check-ins, and who would prefer to work it out on their own and then present their final product for approval at an agreed-on date. As Curt Coffman and Marcus Buckingham’s famous First, Break All the Rules advises, you should always be looking to develop and improve strengths rather than to criticise or nitpick weaknesses. This helps build a team member’s confidence and ultimately yields great results—borne of talent and passion rather than fear of failure.

4. Set clear goals

Make sure that your team members are aware of what you expect from them, and when. Once you have tailored your approach to each of your team members’ needs, you should also set a date to see how things are progressing. Even more important than that, the team member should know exactly what they need to have completed by that date.

For instance, if one of your team members routinely shows up late to work, then nebulous goals, like “Try to be on time in the mornings,” are far less helpful than, “For the next 3 months, I’d like you to be on time every day — barring illness or injury.” Or better yet, work with that team member to understand how they work best. If it’s possible in your workplace, offer them the option to work from home for the morning, or to arrive later and leave later. Perhaps that team member is more productive in the evenings or is rushed bringing their child to daycare and needs a little extra time in the mornings.

Also, consider whether poor performance is due to a disinterest in their current tasks or projects. Find out where they want to go with their career, or what they’d prefer to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Showing a genuine interest in the success of your team members can be the first step in finding the thing that ignites their passion and produces better results in the long run.

5. Reward improvement

Workplace rewards can sometimes present a tricky problem: you want to let an employee know that you recognise and appreciate their improvement without seeming like you’re patronising them. Sometimes, leaders think that gifts are the best ways to show appreciation, but often verbal praise, bonuses, or even the promise of advancement (should the good work continue) are more effective in motivating teammates.

In short: make a clear statement that good work is recognised within the workplace—and not just with a gift card to the coffee shop around the corner.

6. Act on a lack of improvement

If you’ve set clear goals and expectations and your team member didn’t do what you’ve asked, it may be necessary to give them a written or verbal warning. A formal reprimand may be enough to show an employee that your concerns or observations are more serious than they had previously thought. This is not a matter of throwing your weight around, but simply making it clear that where good work receives workplace incentives, poor work garners the opposite.

7. Know when to walk away

If you’ve spent the last few weeks or months working with an employee to improve certain habits or attitudes, and the end result shows little progress, it may be time to take a final and difficult step.

In most circumstances, a lack of motivation at the workplace may simply be a sign that the company and employee are not compatible. If that’s the case, then little can be done to change a team member’s overall outlook or personality fit, and it may be positive to part ways — though it is a daunting task to undertake. Regardless, good managers know when it’s time to cut ties for the benefit of everyone, but only after they’ve invested the appropriate amount of time to attempt to resolve issues and still come up short.


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