Don’t Give Small Employee Performance Problems the Chance to Turn into Big Ones

The majority of managers hate confrontations with employees. They only seem to make things worse. Sometimes, they even result in the termination of an employee. For these reasons, many managers avoid giving employees negative feedback unless it’s absolutely necessary. When it comes to small performance issues, they don’t come down like a ton of bricks; instead, they hint at a problem, making suggestions that will indirectly improve the situation – or so a manager hopes. Sometimes if the problem seems relatively insignificant, a manager will just let it slide. Yes, some employees take advantage of this, but management hesitates to push too hard to avoid ‘making a scene.’

The typical hands-off manager basically avoids performance problems until they can no longer be ignored. But problems always come up. And by the time a problem can no longer be avoided, the dreaded confrontation is inevitable.

When you diagnose a performance problem, start focusing intensely in your regular management conversations on spelling out concrete solutions.

Without regular daily or weekly management conversations with a strong focus, the manager has no natural venue in which to provide the employee with regular evaluation and feedback – good, bad, or neutral. Instead of regular and consistent “problem solving,” which is a good thing, dealing with problems becomes a difficult conversation to be avoided. If small problems are dealt with at all, they are dealt with lightly and in passing, which means these problems are likely to recur. When the problem recurs, it might not be noticed, it might be let to slide, or it might be dealt with again, maybe lightly and in passing. That means the problem is likely to recur again. Sometimes small problems that recur incessantly cause managers to finally explode in an outburst of frustration or anger. Other times small problems recur incessantly and become part of the fabric of the workplace. But some small problems fester and grow. Over time, they become larger problems that can no longer be ignored.

So, by the time most managers have that “performance improvement” conversation, it’s usually too late for that manager to be very effective. For one thing, solving a problem after it has already festered and grown large is so much more difficult than preventing that problem in the first place, or solving it while it was smaller. Now much time and energy has to be spent cleaning up the mess and restoring the status quo. For another thing, in the midst of a problem, people are never going to be at their best. The situation is urgent and people are stressed, frustrated, and in a hurry. Indeed, there are plenty of managers who don’t really deal with problems until they get angry. And, of course, sometimes these conversations become heated.

Middle-aged businessman in the office thinking about business problems

On top of all that, employees often feel attacked when they are confronted with a negative assessment of their behavior. These conversations often come as a shock, as if without warning, especially when the performance in question is a problem that has been festering for some time. The employee is likely to say (or at least think), “I’ve been doing this same thing for days, week, or months, so why now all of a sudden are you coming down on me? Why didn’t you talk to me about this problem sooner, before I built a track record of failure?” Often the manager starts to second-guess himself: “Do I have all the facts? Did I spell out expectations clearly? Am I being fair?” And the answers are probably no, no, and no. Plus, neither the manager nor the employee is experienced at having conversations with each other about the employee’s performance, so neither the employee nor the manager is very good at it. Under such circumstances, of course, these conversations are going to be difficult! Most performance improvement conversations are doomed before they even start.

Solve One Small Performance Problem at a Time

No problem is so small that it should be left alone; small problems too often fester and grow into bigger ones. If you are talking with employees about the details of their work on a regular basis, then talking about small problems – whatever they may be – should be something you do as a matter of course. Solving small problems should be part of your ongoing dialogue with that employee. In this context, nitpicking is a good thing., It send a message that high performance is the only option, that details matter, and that you are paying close attention. You are also doing the employee a favor by making her aware of the small problem so that she can fix it or avoid it in the future. Over time, you are doing the employee the added favor of helping her become more detail oriented.

You’ll be amazed at how many seemingly intangible issues can be made tangible just by doing the hard work of clarifying expectations.

When you diagnose a performance problem, start focusing intensely in your regular management conversations on spelling out concrete solutions. If an employee is often tardy, don’t tell him to stop coming in late. Tell him to start coming in on time. Talk to him before he has a chance to be late again. At the end of his shift today, remind him exactly at what time he is supposed to arrive tomorrow. Maybe even ask him if he is giving himself enough time to get to work each day.

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 she needs to get right. Talk it through in advance. Ask her to carry the checklist and check off each detail as she completes them, or as a reference for routine, ongoing tasks.

If an employee fails to take on enough responsibility, make tough decisions, or solve problems when they arise, work with that person very closely to develop decision/action tools. Talk through every circumstance you can foresee. For each one, provide very simple and clear marching orders: “If A happens, do X. If B happens, do Y…” and so on.

You’ll be amazed at how many seemingly intangible issues can be made tangible 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 a lack of initiative.