4 Tips to Take Struggling Employees to the Top of Their Game

When an employee is performing poorly, your first question isn't so much why the problem has occurred as what you're going to do about it.
4 Tips to Take Struggling Employees to the Top of Their Game
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When we think of poor-performing employees, we typically picture those who are new and still learning, or those who just don't have the best work ethic. However, most of us, as employers, run into situations from time to time where top employees are suddenly not performing at their best.

Related: 4 Ways Managers Can Commit to Improving Employee Engagement

There are countless reasons why this can happen -- why employee performance can suddenly hit a downward slope. And, here, the first question isn't so much why the problem has occurred as what we're going to do about it.

Clearly, those leaders who already have solid relationships formed with their teams will have the best opportunity to quickly uncover what's wrong and nurture those problem employees back to full productivity.

Communication, of course, is key, but, unfortunately, a July OfficeVibe report, The State of Employee Engagement, which looked at 1,000 organizations found that 31 percent of employees polled said they wished their manager communicated more frequently with them.

This means that for nearly one-third of the workforce, leaders may be unaware of the significant issues in employees' lives causing them to suddenly stop performing well. So, when an employee's performance comes to a screeching halt, here's what that leadership can do to get him or her back on track:

1. Don't jump to conclusions.

Jumping to conclusions is a natural reaction -- and one that needs to be avoided.

When employee performance drops, jumping to conclusions just adds more stress for management, for the struggling employee and for his or her co-workers. Prematurely assuming that an employee has grown lazy, doesn't care anymore or is even looking for another job could affect the way leadership responds.

Related: How to Build a High-Performance Team

Without knowing the exact reason for this person's decline, it's challenging to empathize and help create an effective path for the employee to get back to hitting goals. So, be sure to take time to first assess the situation.

When did this person's work start declining? Was he or she working more hours at the time? Was the schedule particularly busy? Were there drastic changes in the employee's work or home life?

Asking this person's co-workers if they've noticed a shift in performance can be detrimental to the employee and company morale. So, it's important to go straight to the source: the struggling employee.

Reassure the employee that he or she is not in trouble or at risk of a job loss. Instead, say that his or her performance isn't as high as it once was and that your concern is to make sure things are okay.

2. Encourage an open dialogue.

Most employees are too embarrassed or nervous to speak with leaders about their dwindling performance. Mark Evans, the marketing director at Direct Line Group, an insurance group headquartered in Bromley, England, recently shared in a Marketing Week post his views on the importance of keeping an open dialogue with employees.

Performance management should include regular conversations to help keep employees from burning out, Evans wrote. "The world is crazy these days; people are always on the edge of burning out, and it's about taking stock and looking after yourself," Evans said. "There's this notion of 'humble bragging,' about how busy we are and now people are being called out as that's not a healthy thing."

On the contrary, however, having regular conversations helps employees share their stresses with management more honestly, Evans wrote. And that, in turn, stops them from holding on to issues that eventually hurt both their well-being and performance.

So, encourage an open dialogue and focus on building a relationship with employees. The more frequently you meet with your team members, the more trust and openness will grow.

Most importantly, be genuine in your discussions. Let employees know that struggling at some point in a career is natural and that leaders are there to help -- not judge.

3. Share your own struggles.

Employees who aren't performing well -- especially those who were once top performers -- tend to feel alone. They're frequently their worst critics and end up being harder on themselves than necessary. This only decreases their ability to move back into their top-performing spot.

Knowing that their superiors have been through similar situations will help them open up and trust that those leaders are there to help guide them back to success. So, share your own humbling and honest stories about personal issues.

Explain situations you've been in step by step so employees can see the commonalities with their struggles. Explain what went wrong, how that felt and what was needed to rise up from the situation.

To make a show of empathy and understanding about how mental health improves job performance, encourage "mental health" days. That's what Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark Live Chat, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he did when one of his web developers emailed the team about taking a mental health day.

Congleton responded with a personal thank you email to his employee. He thanked her for removing the stigma from taking mental health days and implied that it would be fine for more team members to take such days for themselves, as needed.

It's this kind of personal encouragement that can help employees recuperate and begin the uphill climb to performing at their best once again.

4. Be transparent with performance management.

Some leaders believe that tracking employee performance just puts more stress and pressure on their employees. And, certainly, it does make them more aware of the goals they may be missing. However, knowing exactly where they stand with their goals and with management's expectations will make performance conversations easier when these things go off track.

Being transparent with both goals and expectations will also help clear the air, give employees a defined path to hitting goals and show leadership is interested in seeing them succeed.

Related: Will Training Help Improve Employee Performance?

When leaders notice that an employee is struggling, it's time to create a detailed plan to get this person back on track. Remember, a plan shouldn't be based solely on what they're struggling with, but why they're struggling.

If their sales numbers are low because of a personal issue, offer time off so they can deal with the situation and refocus. On the other hand, if work tasks have become overwhelming, make a plan to deal with each project step by step to get any struggling employees back on their feet.

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