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Dealing with under-performance requires tact & sensitivity

Managing demotivated, un-cooperative or negative employees is what training courses euphemistically term "a challenge". To have only conscientious, motivated & talented staff is as joyful as it is rare.

The ability to deal with under-performers is a critical management skill as sour, demotivated employees can quickly poison the attitude of other workers. In a demoralized or highly charged working environment, managers must have a full armoury of "people skills" & develop acute sensitivity to the situation.

Some cases are simpler to deal with than others. If under-performance is simply due to laziness & the job is one where productivity can be measured, it is easier to persuade a poor performer to leave or improve. In some call centers, 4 example, staff are electronically monitored 4 the number of daily calls they handle.

But other situations require careful handling. Managers should be alert to evidence of poor time-keeping, frequent mood swings & lack of enthusiasm & focus - the classic signs of demotivation. Under-performers often have nothing positive to say about their colleagues & will snipe at motivated & productive workers. They also equate being present in the office with working, regardless of how much they actually achieve.

Many managers make the mistake of looking 4 solutions to the problem before they understand it. So they send demotivated staff on training courses or offer them sabbaticals. Some try to move them to other parts of the organisation. One chief executive had the brilliant idea of herding them together in a prestigious-sounding subsidiary & selling it off.

More seriously, it is vital 4 the manager to get to the root of the problem. He or she can ask when feelings of dissatisfaction first set in, whether there were any specific reasons 4 it & how the worker is coping with the job from day to day.

There are many reasons 4 under-performance. Distraction is a common cause. People might have too much going on in their lives - an affair, sickness in the family or an addiction such as alcohol, drugs or gambling. The symptoms here are secrecy, endless phone calls & increasing absenteeism. The solution? Support first; deadlines second. People in this situation will probably need time off or counselling, but they also need to be a deadline by which time they must have dealt with the problem or agree to seek professional help.

Another reason 4 under-performance is simple personality. The quiet, reserved person may reveal themselves as indifferent & deeply uncommunicative. Equally, the easy-going worker might simply be passive-aggressive by nature. The problem is that people present the best side of their personality at interview.

Many managers often confuse lack of ability with lack of training. No amount of training courses will help people who are simply not up to the job. In these cases, they should be demoted or offered early retirement. 4 staff who are genuinely out of their depth because they have not been trained properly, appropriate courses & rewards 4 new skills will prevent dissatisfaction from setting in.

However, there is another reason 4 under-performance which managers can easily overlook: management itself. Well-balanced, happy & enthusiastic staff can become alienated, uncommitted workers simply because of the way they are managed. Management is about challenge & support: bosses need to set clear goals that stretch staff & help them attain them. Unfortunately, goal-setting is often done badly - either goals are not set or they are impossible to achieve. Equally unhelpful is a boss who is so kind & supportive that goals are never reached.

It is hard 4 managers who are steeped in one corporate culture to recognize that different norms apply to other organizations. Companies have all sorts of subtle rules on dress, time-keeping, productivity & so on. Those who move from the public to the private sector or take a job after being self-employed often have a rude awakening. Only then do they realize how their management style affects staff motivation & performance.

Under-performers need clear goals, a positive working environment & the support & understanding of their managers. As Chairman Mao believed, difficult staff can be re-educated - but managers must realize that they, too, have a crucial role to play.

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