Employee Performance – Mentoring and Continuously Upgrading the Bottom 20%

Over the Labor Day Weekend, I ended up in a discussion about employee performance and the frustrations of a manager of a large team with regard to balancing his time between top performers, high-potentials, new team members, his average performers and most frustratingly, the weakest performers.

It is a given that new employees require a certain degree of a manager’s time.  On-boarding and getting a new resource up to speed as fast as possible are critical to success and minimizing the impact and cost of turnover.  One thing he hadn’t thought of was turning a couple of his better performers, who had demonstrated an interest in, and aptitude for, growth into supervisory/management roles in the future, into mentors to provide further assistance to the newbies beyond the time he could spend with them.  This creates multiple benefits for the team and organization.

This mentoring relationship should also be considered for high-potentials…those who have proven their long term potential through stand-out short and mid-term performance.  In addition, it is important that the manager have regular development discussions and be working a plan with each ‘hi-po’ to keep them engaged, challenged, learning and feeling appreciated.

Most frustrating to him was the time he had to spend with his weakest performers.  We discussed a process I refer to as Train-Coach-Replace (“TCR”).

Train – Sometimes, employee performance is weak because they have not received adequate training based on the skills and experience they brought to the job and the uniqueness or complexity of processes.  Keep in mind that not everyone responds to the same kind of training, so just because you think you have a good training system or manual, it may not be what a particular employee needs to perform at his or her best.  If you are confident that they can demonstrate the skills necessary to perform the job, additional training will not likely be the answer.

Coach – There can be dozens of reasons why performance is lacking, even when the employee has been given adequate and appropriate training to perform the job.  There may be issues with confidence, relationships with co-workers, physical challenges presented by the workplace or equipment itself or a multitude of personal situations that could be impacting performance.  Initiating a coaching and communication process where you as a manager outline the performance deficiencies as well as the expectations and/or minimal acceptable standards is critical to getting to the bottom of the situation and hopefully resolving it positively.

Replace – I do not make recommendations to terminate someone’s employment lightly.  There are times where employee conduct requires termination, with or without a progressive discipline process. However, outside of those situations and where they are caught in the middle of a restructuring, downsizing or merger, I believe employees should be given adequate opportunity to improve their performance.  The cost of starting over can be many times more that investing a little more time into training and coaching.  At the end of the day, if an employee cannot, or will not, improve their performance to an adequate level, you are left with no option other than to replace them.  This decision will be supported and justified by the steps taken and documented from the onboarding, training and coaching process.  This process and documentation will also be your protection in court if the termination is challenged legally.

Continuously Upgrading the Bottom 20%

We all know the cliché about the chain only being as strong as the weakest link.  Although maybe not as black and white as that, the same concept does apply to a team.  As such, while ensuring that your top performers are recognized, rewarded and positively reinforced, and your hi-po’s are being actively developed, a certain amount of time has to be spent working with weaker performers to help them become stronger.  Again, the TCR process can be applied, however I would also consider adding an element such as peer mentoring to the mix.

As the teams overall performance improves, the minimal acceptable standard of performance increases.  Team members have to keep up with those improvements.  While there will always be a certain level of bell curving within a team, the goal of a manager is to minimize the downside of that curve.  At a certain point, we may be taking ‘Replace’ out of the equation because we are simply talking about the bottom 20% of a high performance team, the Train and Coach elements should remain a part of the plan to keep them moving forward and up the performance curve.  In theory, a top performer today who does nothing to improve should over time become part of the bottom 20% as those around him or her are developed into better performers.

As a manager, it can be very frustrating dealing with the bottom 20%, especially if that includes weak or failing performers.  However, in order to develop an effective and high performing team, it is important that you focus on their improvement as part of the overall distribution of your time.  It is this ability that will also separate you from other managers, ensuring that you are considered a top performer or hi-po and not part of the bottom 20% of managers!

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