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Managing the Marginal Performer

Every manager must, from time to time, deal with a marginal performer — an employee whose work, for the most part, is satisfactory, but who regularly fails in some specific area or areas to maintain a adequate level of performance. The marginal performer’s work can be classified as substandard in some cases, but it is not so poor as to warrant immediate termination.

It can be difficult to manage such a worker, yet it is the manager’s responsibility to help the employee become productive. A manager confronted with a marginal performer can utilize two approaches to bring about a solution. Initially, the manager can try the “therapeutic” approach, in which the employee evaluates his or her own performance. If this fails, the manager needs to rely on the “punitive” approach, in which the manager directly criticizes the employee.

The Therapeutic Approach: The purpose of the therapeutic approach is to spark an employee toward improved performance through counseling. The manager’s goal is to help the employee recognize the existence of a problem, accept the need for change, and formulate his or her own program for improvement. A therapeutic counseling interview includes the following steps:

The manager must critically assess his or her own attitudes and opinions. It is important to try to eliminate all personal bias and prejudice or at least be aware of any such emotions no matter how little effect they seem to be having. For the most positive results, the manager must be noncritical or at least noncommittal toward the marginal performer. In addition, the interview must be conducted in private, without interruptions, and with adequate time.

Setting a Comfortable Atmosphere
The employee needs to be made to feel relaxed and at ease. It is particularly important that no mental anguish is spent in guessing the interview’s purpose. It is not necessary for the manager to “build the employee up” with praise about favorable performance, but it is desirable that the atmosphere is friendly and constructive.

Promoting Self-Appraisal
The simplest, most forthright tactic is to explain to the employee that there are problem areas. Elicit self-analysis from employees about their jobs, focusing on those areas where they feel that their performance could be improved. Once employees begin discussing unsatisfactory performance — or at least elaborating on problems they are encountering on the job — the manager can pursue the problem areas. Asking, rather than telling the employee, becomes the key to an effective discussion. Through these questions, the manager keeps the employees on the subject and gets them to suggest ideas for improving performance.

Stimulating Self-Suggestion
Once the employee has begun to make positive suggestions, the manager must encourage detailed exploration of these ideas to determine which ones will be most useful for self-improvement. The manager must interfere as little as possible in the employee’s self-evaluation. Offering the employee suggestions will likely negate the whole process. The employee’s defense mechanisms are always lingering in the background, and they may surface the minute the manager begins to press the employee into following a course of action, thereby defeating the purpose of the therapeutic counseling interview.

Agreeing Upon a Specific Action Plan
The final requisite for an effective therapeutic counseling session is to end it with some agreed-upon, specific action plan.

Listening Actively
The most frequent cause of failure in therapeutic counseling interviews is the interviewer’s tendency to talk too much. Numerous studies have shown that in counseling interviews, the average manager will talk as much as 85 percent of the time. For a counseling interview to serve its purpose of drawing out responses from the employee, the interviewer must be an effective listener, not a talker.

Asking Leading Questions
The manager must know how to ask questions which force the employee to speak about his or her unsatisfactory performance. After asking the question, the interviewer needs to remain silent, thus compelling the employee to speak.

Accepting Silence
Most people talk too much because they feel uncomfortable with silence. For example, a manager may ask an employee to suggest how his or her job performance could be improved. If the employee is unprepared for such a question, it may take a few moments to prepare a cogent answer. These few moments may seem like hours, compelling the manager to say something else or to elaborate on the original question. If the manager succumbs to this compulsion, the employee’s chain of thought will be interrupted, and he or she will be encouraged to lapse back into a passive mental frame. It’s far easier for the employee to listen to the boss talk than it is to try to construct a meaningful answer to a pointed question.

This encouragement can be in the form of visual feedback (having a facial expression of interest, keeping eyes upon the speaker’s face, or nodding) as well as verbal comments. The employee will be inclined to tell all he or she knows if the interviewer, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, retains a noncommittal facial expression and tone of voice.

By rewording the employee’s input, the manager may be able to process the information related more clearly as well as “compel” the employee to elaborate on those parts which he or she feels the manager didn’t clearly understand.

The manager must attempt to gather the important ideas and facts expressed. This summarizing will help establish a basis for further discussion of the problems which have arisen.

Often a marginal performer, even after therapeutic counseling, may not understand that his or her work is seen as substandard. The manager will have to directly ask the employee how the performance could be improved. If the manager still meets with resistance or avoidance, he or she will have to give suggestions as a last resort.

The Punitive Approach: If the unsatisfactory performer refuses to commit to a self-proposed improvement program, or belligerently denies that a problem exists, the manager has only coercion or intimidation left as options. Although the punitive approach seldom works,situations under which it is the sole recourse do exist.

Fortunately, managers rarely have to invoke the punitive technique in managing the marginal performer. By conservative estimate, greater than 95 percent of the employees of any given organization conduct themselves in a normal and reasonable manner, rarely causing any problems and certainly causing few problems requiring discipline. Of the remaining three to five percent who are problem employees, only a very small percent fail to respond to the therapeutic counseling sessions. Perhaps one percent of them creates such serious disciplinary problems that it forces their supervisor to use this technique. But, curiously enough, if the manager does not deal effectively with those very few people who continually violate the rules, those employees’ dissatisfaction and disrespect will very likely spread and infect others.

In resorting to the punitive approach, the manager must realize that its purpose is to obtain compliance with established rules of conduct and to invoke corrective action if these rules are violated. The following are general guidelines to apply in seeking corrective action through disciplinary procedures. The manager must:

  • Make instructions simple and understandable.
  • Know the rules.
  • Gather all relevant facts.
  • Move in promptly on violations.
  • Take into account the seriousness of an offense as well as any mitigating circumstances.
  • Give the employee an opportunity to explain his or her position.
  • Determine what action to take.
  • Avoid any kind of physical control.
  • Observe all contractual procedures.
  • Keep records of actions taken.