High Commitment from Low Performers

Despite the lousy odds for success, supervisors often use the "or-else" approach with low performers because it's quick and easy. But there is another way to coax better performances out of these workers.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013
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Cindy started out okay. She made it through her six-month probationary period well enough to be put on the regular payroll. But then she started slipping. Sometimes she "forgot" to do things that were on her personal check sheet she completed and sent to the next team. Other times she didn't seem to pay attention to what she was doing and got way behind on her work.

Cindy's boss tells me he hates being the bad guy, but when she first missed going through her check sheet, he had to let Cindy know that not completing it was unacceptable. He told her that if she kept forgetting, she could lose her job. Then when she started falling behind, he wrote her up and let her know she needed to turn her performance around, or else.

Every supervisor understands what Cindy's boss is going through. It's the worst part of their jobs, too. Not only that, they don't even hold out hope for Cindy considering how many Cindys in the past didn't make it after the "or-else" talk.

What's puzzling is that nobody likes the "or-else" approach, but supervisors keep using it. Why? And why doesn't it work to motivate all the Cindys?

Despite the lousy odds for success, supervisors use the "or-else" approach because it's quick and easy. All Cindy's boss has to do is say, "This is what you didn't do, and if you don't do it, here's the punishment." It doesn't take a lot of thought or preparation. The supervisor doesn't even have to go to a leadership class to learn how to do it. They've learned it from their bosses, so it's almost a reflex reaction.

And here's why it doesn't work. Remember Douglas McGregor, the "Theory X, Theory Y" guy? He explained that it doesn't matter how nasty or nice we are when we do it; giving orders and applying pressure with "or else" -- the Theory X approach -- doesn't work because it's irrelevant to the employee. It doesn't motivate someone unless they've consumed their last crumb of bread and the boss is holding the only food available to keep them alive. It's just the wrong approach.

Here's another catch. When we give the pitiful producer the standard she has to meet to keep her job, we tend to set the bar as low as possible because we're convinced she can't do any more than that. Even if she does just enough to keep her job, her compliance level of output is never going to make either one of us happy.

Now let's consider a Theory Y alternative to the "or-else" approach. Instead of trying to hold Cindy accountable by telling her to do the job, or else, leave her with the accountability for her performance. Describe the high performance needed by the team and ask her: First, what she will commit to for the business, second, how she plans to do it, and third, what she needs to be able to get it done.

Obviously, for Cindy to answer these questions, she has to understand what the team and business needs from her and have the wherewithal to do it. Assuming she has that and everything else she needs to succeed, here are the possible results: One, she will refuse to commit to anything, or her commitment will be insufficient for what her team needs, and won't be a fit for the organization. Two, she will commit to substantially contribute to team success, but fail to honor her commitment in which case she also won't be a fit. Three, Cindy will make an un-coerced commitment and energetically and passionately help the team achieve business-relevant objectives.

The Theory Y approach stands a better chance of prompting the third outcome partly because it puts the decision for Cindy's commitment firmly in her hands. It gives her an intriguing choice that she probably didn't see before. It also helps her thoughtfully consider whether she's willing to motivate herself enough to turn her performance around in a major way and help the team.

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Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect that all the Cindys you run into will turn into outstanding performers when faced with this choice. But, if you use Theory Y to allow them to reconsider what they're willing to commit to, you might be surprised how many do.

Trying It On For Fit

Consider the performance conversations you have with low performing employees. Do you send the message that you are responsible for their performance? Or do your employees see themselves as fully accountable for team success knowing you're there to provide support, not bail them out?

Plan your conversations with low-performing employees so they understand that it's their responsibility to produce high value-adding results. Support them by making sure they have the resources and decision latitude they need. And respect their decisions to make and honor commitments for high performance, or not. Of course, respect the natural consequences that follow either decision and help them humanely transition to something more suitable if they choose the latter.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences.

Kevin Herring is a workforce performance turnaround expert, consultant, speaker and founder of Oro Valley, Ariz.-based Ascent Management Consulting.


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