Avoiding the Ostrich Approach to People Problems

Some years back, one of my clients shared with his fellow Strategic Advisory Board members that “In order to be successful, we all have to deal with four things: our people, our processes, effective execution and addressing the issues that growth brings.”

He was right and he also listed in the correct order of importance of the four components.

When it comes to people problems, owners often hope that these issues will either fix themselves or disappear, without getting involved.

Typical issues include:

– Dealing with a recent hire not working out
– Addressing a complacent long term employee or employees
– Having under-performing family members working in the business
– Serious issues between employees affecting work assignments
– Failure of a manager to step up and actually manage

When confronted with these realities the owner may go into denial, followed by a search for someone, perhaps in Human Resources or another subordinate, to take charge, to take ownership of the situation.

This may work out, but often, the issue does not go away, it only worsens. This impacts company productivity, financial results and morale.

The solution is not to delay making a decision because this will only prolong the problem and may actually cause it to become worse.

The solution is to use the power of leadership, directly and immediately, and resolve the problem on behalf of the company.

Owners have many times discussed with me the need to hold difficult conversations, specifically about how to deal with under-performing subordinates but they rarely asked me how to hold these meetings.

The reason is because they were not ready to do so.

When the time is right, and again, the longer the discussion is delayed, the more painful it will be for both parties, my recommended nine step formula is:

– Call in the person, along with their direct supervisor
– Have little or no preamble
– Thank the employee for the loyalty and tenure
– Advise them they are not working to your expectations
– Take responsibility for unclear or conflicting expectations to date
– To avoid all misunderstanding, very clear contribution expectations will be provided
– The next meeting will be held shortly, within a day or two, to get mutual agreement going forward
– If improvement is not seen shortly, further consequences will follow and then end the meeting

The last step, the most important step, is to follow through.

Why have these conversations, as challenging as they might be?

The most important reason is to save the employee. It is hard to find dedicated and loyal workers, so if the employee can also be productive, saving the employee is far less expensive than termination and replacement.

The second is to improve morale and productivity. The acknowledgement that ownership is involved in addressing a long standing issue with decisiveness advertises that under performance or other issues are no longer going to be tolerated.

A most significant barrier to not taking this overdue action is, candidly, only in the owners mind.

The employees already know the under-performers are not doing enough. Hard working employees resent the presence of these individuals on the payroll. Under performers who receive a paycheck cause other employees to wonder how much they can get away with.

Employees want clear direction, clear goals and want to be on a team that achieves results.

Often owners slip into a zone of indifference, thinking that over involvement in managing people will undermine the responsibilities of their management team.

The problem, however, starts in management not doing what needs to be done and in some cases, personnel issues may be with a manager or managers.

But having a script and knowing what the desired outcome for the employee and the company is can go a long way to overcoming the hesitation to take action that owners have.

The final piece of advice is that every organization has a least one, and possibly more, employees that are not performing. Make your list now, and set a deadline for having the first conversation.

The conversations are never easy to have, but are well worth the anxiety you may endure to have a better company for yourself, your clients and your employees.