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Bruce Tulgan: How to turn low-performing employees into better workers

Low performers are looking for a boss who is hands-off and treats every employee the same. They want a boss who doesn't keep track, who ignores performance problems and who doesn't tell them what to do and how to do it. They want to be left alone to hide out and collect the same paycheck as everyone else, regardless of their performance. Low performers are the great beneficiaries of under-management.

Don't let them get away with it.

The typical hands-off manager avoids dealing with performance problems until they can no longer be ignored. However, if you engage in regular problem solving, nine out of ten performance problems will be solved quickly and easily or will be avoided altogether.

"Revise and adjust. Practice and fine-tune." That is the mantra of continuous improvement.
Constant evaluation and feedback will help you revise and adjust your marching orders. In turn, your employee will revise and adjust his performance. Through this slow, steady progress, you help employees practice and fine-tune their performance.

When you diagnose a performance problem, focus intensely on spelling out concrete solutions.

  1. If an employee is often tardy, don't tell him to stop coming in late. Tell him to start coming in on time.
  2. If an employee is failing to meet quality standards, don't tell her to stop missing details and ignoring specifications. Give her a checklist of every detail and specification she needs to get right.
  3. If an employee is too slow, set a realistic quota of tasks per hour or set realistic short-term deadlines with a clear timetable of benchmarks from beginning to the end. Suggest that she give herself a time limit to complete each task and stick to it.
  4. If an employee is chatting too much at work, coach the employee on how to keep quiet and focus his task.

Difficult problems can be solved just by doing the hard work of clarifying expectations. With some persistent coaching, you can help someone make a lasting and meaningful change on something as intangible as attitude, enthusiasm, or determination.

Some problems resist solutions even when you deal with them aggressively and persistently.
Take a step back and ask yourself if you are missing something. Have you properly diagnosed the problem? Do you need to look at the problem in a new way? At this stage of the game, nearly all performance problems fall into one or more of three categories: ability, skill, or will.

  1. If the problem is ability, your employee's natural strengths are probably not a good match with some or all of the tasks and responsibilities in her current role.
  2. If the problem is skill, an employee is missing knowledge, hasn't mastered techniques or lacks necessary tools or resources. It is your job to make sure that the employee gets what she needs to succeed.
  3. The hardest nut to crack, of course, is motivation or the will to perform. Every person is different, so what motivates (or de-motivates) each person is different.

Once you have diagnosed a persistent performance problem, you will need to develop a game plan for staging a purposeful intervention. This should not be a dreaded confrontation that is doomed to be a terrible experience. Remember, you are still trying to help this person improve.

Ultimately, if your employee fails to improve his performance despite your regular coaching and warnings, you will have to follow through with real negative consequences.
Firing someone is the ultimate punishment. But if you handle problems properly, you will probably never have to fire anyone. Keeping up the intensity of your hands-on management and shining a bright light on employees performances will usually be enough pressure to cause stubborn low performers to want to escape. Almost always, they will give up on you, before you give up on them. Remember, low performers shy away from scrutiny and consequences. So manage low performers very, very closely... and you will be surrounded by high performers.

Bruce Tulgan (New Haven, CT) is the author or coauthor of numerous books including his most recent, NOT EVERYONE GETS A TROPHY (2009), the best-seller IT'S OKAY TO BE THE BOSS (2007), and the classic MANAGING GENERATION X (1995).  Since founding the management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader.  Tulgan's weekly v-log (video newsletter) is available for free at

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Bruce Tulgan: How to turn low-performing employees into better workers