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How to Help a Struggling Employee Get Back on Track

Employees aren't just the skills you hired them for. They are people with all the baggage that entails.
How to Help a Struggling Employee Get Back on Track
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6 min read
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Do you have an employee -- or multiple employees -- struggling with output and productivity? Or perhaps you have a recent hire who hasn't been living up to expectations, and neither one of you knows what to do.

These cases are extremely frustrating: People who appeared capable of producing high-quality output for your team aren't living up to your expectations. You're stressed, and your employees are stressed. Despite the challenge of the situation at hand, not all hope is lost.

We all get in a funk from time to time, and it often takes someone else to help us pull ourselves out. You can also do that for your employees -- it will make them more valuable to your company, strengthen your relationship with them and enhance their job satisfaction.

Here's what it takes to lift a struggling employee up.

Identify the issue.

Before developing a solution, you have to find the root cause of the problem. That first involves noticing what the employee's issue is: Is he working fewer hours? Does she stare into space all day? Has his quality of critical thinking or ambition waned? Does she seem to have a chip on her shoulder about an opportunity she'd wanted?

From there, you should ask why. Try to get as close to the root of the problem as possible. Has something else changed in his personal life that's making him late to work? Was she wanting to blow your socks off on that opportunity to earn a raise? This will allow you to come up with solutions that will work over the long haul.

Related: 9 Ways to Manage Underperforming Employees

Communicate openly.

To understand the root of the problem, talk with your employee. It might be an uncomfortable conversation, but it's critical -- you're responsible for his success and can frame it that way. You can honestly say you aren't getting involved in his personal life, but because the quality of his work has declined (cite examples), you need to know what's happening.

Perhaps the employee hasn't even realized his work quality has dipped. That is a prime opportunity to offer candid feedback to help him improve and become more self-aware.

When an employee does realize his quality has dropped off, however, he will hopefully be open about his situation -- at least to the extent that you can grasp what's going on. When an employee's not open, you have to help him understand that you can't help if you don't have the basics to build a foundation on. Without context, all you can do is note that his quality has decreased and explain that it could lead to a dismissal in the future.

Through this stage, the most important step is to listen. You don't need to judge, think or respond immediately, just listen and empathize with your employee's situation. When you have a better understanding, the company and the employee can start fresh.

The core reason for an employee's lack of effort probably isn't as simple as laziness. The fact that someone's wife is leaving him and his head has been preoccupied, however, could be.

Related: 7 Reasons Why Divorce Is the Perfect Excuse to Become an Entrepreneur

Is it internal to the company or external?

This is an important question to answer because it dictates how you should support your employee. When a lack of effort has to do with something happening within the office or company, you can make an effort to fix that. Your employee could be distracted by a teammate who's been harassing him, or he might feel like he hasn't been given proper advancement opportunities.

In these cases, understanding an employee's issues and seeing how you can support him is useful. Be creative, honest and willing to work within your confines.

When the issue is something outside the office, the approach is different. You can't fix a sick relative or an employee's relationship with his spouse. All you can do is try to support him while he's in the office, working to take his mind off things to create a more positive atmosphere and make him feel like he can do his best work. Treating it as a safe haven from his other troubles can help, and you can explore accommodations, like a long weekend to clear his head or later morning start times, with additional work hours at night, to care for a sick parent.

Related: 5 Problem Employees and What You Can Do About Them

What kind of manager do you want to be?

When employees are struggling, some managers decide not to get emotionally involved. They talk to their employees about the quality of their work and preach that it needs to improve in order for them to stay on board. If the person needs the job, he will almost certainly pick up his effort -- but he may not feel very loyal to his employer once the crisis has passed.

Other managers decide to practice more patience and understanding with their employees. Although the short-term impact might lead to lower output, the problems that the employee has are more likely to get resolved in a healthy manner. This will lead to a more sustainable and vigorous bounce-back.

It's during these times that you have to decide how involved and empathetic to be on a case-by-case basis, based on the individual relationship you have with each employee.

The more listening and support you offer, however, the more likely you are to find your employee's problem and work together to solve it -- at least at the office. Creating a culture of openness, and confronting issues instead of letting them fester, tends to lead to higher overall output and levels of happiness -- and a longer, more positive relationship between you and your struggling employee.

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