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Dealing with Deficiencies: Managing Sub-Par Performance | #ICMIchat Rundown (September 22, 2020)

Football referee standing in front of crowd.

Most managers could happily go without addressing bad behavior, but it's a necessary part of the job. Everyone suffers when employees break the rules, don't stay on task, or cut corners in customer service. Their coworkers must pick up the slack, customers don't get the help they need, and managers feel the stress of dreaded conversations to come. While these conversations are unpleasant to have, they're vital to creating a positive, professional, and productive environment.

Join us on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific to weigh in on the contact center industry's most pressing challenges. Check out next week's discussion and join the conversation on Twitter!

In this week's #ICMIchat, our community explores why some employees lag behind our standards, how to turn around underperforming teams, and steps supervisors must take to keep their operations running like well-oiled machines. Getting your team back on track doesn't have to involve a lot of confrontation; often, collaboration and empathy are needed most. We also must take a hard look in the mirror to ensure we're doing what's necessary to promote positive outcomes.

Establishing Expectations

For employees to achieve our expectations, supervisors must first explain them. It's all too easy to assume that our employees innately understand what is expected, but that's a dangerous trap to fall into. New employees may have come from a vastly different organizational culture. Senior employees may have forgotten why the basics are so crucial. Having too many rules and regulations can be confusing; no one can memorize the 1,000-page handbook. It wouldn't be worth their time. Supervisors must be direct, clear, and consistent in establishing expectations and then continually reinforce them.

At least annually, the performance goals and expectations should be reviewed and confirmed. At least monthly the leader should review how the EE is performing against expectations - sooner if they are hitting a critical point.

Goals and feedback should be delivered directly to the employee. While sending emails or posting to Workday is a validation of the expectations, the initial goal-setting should involve a 1:1 conversation and calibration.

Upfront and consistent. I try not to sugarcoat or hide anything. Usually people appreciate not being treated like children.

Common Mishaps

There are plenty of ways for employees to mess up; it's actually relatively easy. No one is perfect, but there are some common themes to performance problems. Attitudes may be hard to manage amid the stress of externalities, employees may have a different idea of what it means to be punctual, or dress codes could be outdated or a source of frustration. Supervisors must always apply the same standard to every employee and respectfully address deviations as they occur.

An employee can miss expectation because it is not written properly in the employees handbook or the company does not have an employee handbook. Also the expectations are not communicated properly to the team.

All of those are things that employees must control. All companies can do is enforce the policies they have set forth and to be fair across the board when enforcing. Remote work has created the flexibility that we focus more on productivity.

In my experience, attendance is one of the most common. CCTR environment is one that can't be as flexible as others. We need ppl when we expect them in order to serve customers.

It Takes Two

Enforcing the rules is a two-way street. Disobedience isn't always driven by carelessness; it's commonly the result of forgetfulness or misunderstanding. It's even possible that rules are too aspirational to be achieved. In any case, managers often bear some culpability for employee misbehavior. Clarity and regular reinforcement and coaching help employees stay on track; they can't do it alone!

"People need to be reminded more than they need to be isntructed." Samuel Johnson. Defining expectations is not a Day One and Done kind of thing. It is the leader's obligation to continually remind the team of what is important and WHY.

Expectations could be too high. The employees could be unempowered. The team could be off rhythm. A pandemic could be raging through! Any combination of these could also be the case.

No employees are not always to blame. There should be constructive feedback given to the employee by the manager on a consistent basis and not just during performance evaluations. If this is not done then how will the employee know how to improve.

Teaching New Tricks

Old habits are hard to break. When you first take over an underperforming team, it may feel like there's no hope. Years of anarchy may lead employees not to respect or value the rules, and bad examples spread quickly among groups. If you've inherited an existing team that struggles to meet expectations, try to understand why. Natural barriers to compliance threaten good order as much as complacency. New supervisors must identify the sources of dysfunction and correct them to introduce new ways of doing things.

I took over a small team like this many years ago. Spoke clearly about what was expected of us. Laid out how much we could all prosper if we did well. Explained each person’s responsibilities. 1st checkpoint in 3 months, we had already made progress.

Define "New Beginnings" to re-establish expectations. Reward and recognize any performance improvement, no matter how small. If you want your people to make it a habit of delivering outstanding service, you have to make it a habit of thanking them when they when they do.

Like any team, leaders must show genuine interest in seeing the success of team members. Having conversations, accountability checks, and seeing how they can assist their team in reaching the goals set.

Beginning a Dialogue

Opening the conversation about missed expectations may be the most formidable obstacle to overcome. Foremost, supervisors must approach employees with respect and empathy. It's not easy to accept criticism, and the tension is quickly exacerbated. Where possible, obtain an employee's permission to offer feedback, ask questions to fully understand why decisions were made, and help employees to know how negative behaviors affect those around them.

The use of the sandwich technique is always proposed... I have used it and it works... when poor attitude is the issue... wisdom is required as no one will admit that their attitude is a problem.... also one on one works better...

The approach should be open, honest and detailed. I like to use actual examples and how they can improve. The last conversations should be positive and encouraging.

Making Progress

Once supervisors and employees mutually agree on a course of action, it's up to leaders to follow up and hold employees accountable. Equally important is paying attention to progress and reinforcing positive behaviors and efforts. If you don't notice what employees are doing right, it may be perceived as unfair to see only when doing wrong. Change isn't easy, especially when habits are ingrained. It can be done slowly and with encouragement.

Define expectations in a one-to-one session. Thereafter, offer immediate positive feedback when you see it. Maintain scheduled one-to-ones. Always use CARE to encourage them. Communicate. Appreciate. Recognize. Empower.

Spend time with them. Get into their context. Coach them actively. Celebrate their wins, however granular. Help them find their feet, and believe in their own potential. Be patient and give it time. It’s the only way to do this, and it’s definitely worth!

Documentation Counts

When it comes to coaching employees towards improved performance, documentation is crucial. First, offering concrete examples of where performance is lagging is sometimes necessary for employees to understand the problem. Speaking abstractly provides too many chances to dismiss the topic at hand. Second, documentation forces supervisors to quantify the severity of the issue. It's easy to feel like problems recur more often than they do; keeping records is a good check of our sense of reality.

"Write ups" can be a distraction. Employees should fear letting the team and customers down, not a silly piece of paper. However, it's important for supervisors to document coaching and violations, but you don't necessarily need to rub it in their face.

If an initial conversation has been had with corrective steps that can be taken, then yes. Even if just documenting for your records, then you can refer if there needs to be a write-up because there has been no improvement or effort.

The Next Steps

Occasionally, progress isn't being made, no matter how hard we try. It eventually becomes necessary to pursue more serious disciplinary action to preserve the team's integrity. Having documentation ready will be helpful when it comes time to contact HR. While painful for all involved, taking the required steps is often more kind than ignoring the problem.

Join us on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific to weigh in on the contact center industry's most pressing challenges. Check out next week's discussion and join the conversation on Twitter!

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