5 Tips for Managing an Underperformer — Remotely

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Liz Kislik for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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While a majority of employers believe that that their employees will return to their workplaces after Covid-19’s impact diminishes, working from home isn’t going to disappear. The reality is that a huge number of people were already working from home (almost 10 million workers in the U.S. in 2019); that number is only likely to rise post-pandemic. As the manager of a remote team, you can’t afford to ignore underperformance from remote workers, whether they’re temporarily at home, working in local branch offices, or half a world away.

Although you might assume that managing an underperformer in a remote environment would be more challenging (who wants to have a series of difficult conversations over Zoom?), there’s actually an upside. You may actually be more effective in handling the situation because you have to plan and structure your interactions, rather than catching up in the hallway or waiting for them to stop by when you’re in the office. Here are five things you can do to help remote underperformers improve their game.

Revisit your expectations. Take the opportunity to reconsider what you want most from the employee, and why you feel you’re not getting it. Start by reviewing your recent directives, and whether your communications about what’s expected have been clear and consistent from the beginning. This is something you do with underperformers in any context, but when you don’t see the employee in person, it’s even more important to ask yourself whether your statements have been ambiguous. Part of this process is separating out whether your dissatisfaction is with their work products, or with the way they deliver.

If their style or approach is the problem, check to see if you’re expecting them to work the way you do. If that’s the case, let go of those expectations and dispassionately assess their real strengths and capacities for contributing to the team’s work. When one of the senior executives I work with came to terms with the fact that he didn’t care for one of his subordinates, it turned out that the remote relationship worked better because he could pay more attention to her output and the praise he heard about her from other leaders, and less to his own biased reactions.

If you suspect the underperformer’s difficulties come from insufficient experience, specific skill deficits, or a lack of business or organizational acumen, consider whether they need training, or to partner with a more experienced colleague. This may be more challenging in a remote environment, but it’s too risky to wait until you’re back in the office to provide the support they need.

Learn more about them. Even if they’ve been on your team for a while, it’s important to ask about their goals and what they care about, as these things change as circumstances evolve. Plus, you don’t have the benefit of casual, in-person contact to pick up details about family, hobbies, or past work successes. Then, modify your management approach to match their needs. For example, you might learn that they miss working side-by-side with colleagues and would perform better if they were assigned to projects that involved more regular interaction.

If you’re not familiar with their remote set-up and schedule, ask. Some team members may prefer strict deadlines to structure their often-interrupted workdays; others may benefit from more flexible deadlines than usual to help them deal with the additional pressures of working from home. Take their home obligations like schooling time or elder care into account, according them the same respect you would regular work meetings.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.


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