Houston, we have a problem

Dealing with underachievers can be tricky at the best of times, let alone in a small firm. But there are ways to make it less painful…


Dealing with staff is one of the most challenging tasks of running a business of any size. No matter how strong the leadership team, every once in a while an organisation will come across an under-performer. An unproductive employee can have a significant impact on the business as a whole, especially in a small firm where every head counts. Yet many entrepreneurs and small business owners aren’t confident about how to deal with under-performing staff. With the right processes behind recruitment, management and development of staff, business leaders can deal with difficult situations.

It sounds obvious, but recruiting the right person is a good starting point. Properly matching the candidate with the role will ensure the employee is more likely to be motivated from the beginning. In addition, by determining what sort of person and characteristics the role requires, employers will be more confident in looking for candidates with those qualities.

One of the problems many SME owners face is a tendency to hire people too similar to themselves. Businesses need different people with different strengths, so it is important to hire people suitable for the role, rather than just because you like them. If you’re an extroverted entrepreneur, you may need somebody calm and focused to counterbalance your own energy, and a team full of dominant ‘go getting’ personalities may need somebody who is happier planning and strategising.

To determine whether a person is right for a role or even for a company, psychometric assessment can be an invaluable tool. By identifying the strengths and limitations of a candidate, employers can see whether they will fit into a role. For example, an extrovert is unlikely to be a good fit for a role that doesn’t involve dealing with people, while a more introverted individual could be uncomfortable in a sales role. 

Using some kind of framework for thinking through what your ideal employee looks like and how you’ll recognise that candidate when they appear, will give you more control over the situation and increase your confidence in the decisions you make. However, sometimes the realisation that the person and the role aren’t well suited comes after a candidate has already been recruited. In this situation, many SME owners feel adrift and don’t realise that those same processes can be applied to employee management as well.

If you want to get the best from the people who work for you then you need to understand how they behave and what motivates them and adapt your own behaviour accordingly. 

With the economic climate in its current state, being clear on who is performing well in your business is every bit as important as managing your cash or stock, and a small investment in this area can go a long way.

Psychometric assessment can give you the knowledge you need to manage your employees in the most productive way and, importantly, give you confidence that you are handling the situation productively. As any business owner knows, taking quality, decisive action is vital.

If a staff member is performing poorly, ignoring the situation may only exacerbate the problem and send the message that performing at this level is acceptable. It can also impact on the team in general and create bad feeling. By addressing the issue straightaway you make it clear you are aware of the problem and give the employee an opportunity to explain any underlying issues you may not be aware of.

Even at this stage, finding out more about your employee can be valuable and help open up the lines of communication about why an employee behaves a certain way – without assigning blame or labelling behaviour as ‘wrong’. A poor performing employee isn’t necessarily unskilled, but could be demotivated. By understanding what motivates your employees you can take steps to restructure their role, work with them to build on their strengths, minimise their limitations and fulfil their role to the best of their ability.

Having the knowledge you need to manage your employees in the most productive way is a powerful tool for an employer, but when working with an underperforming employee, it’s important to be aware of the responsibility you have to use the information in a positive way. If you need to give performance feedback, make sure you provide specific examples of when the employee didn’t perform as you would like. Being specific gives you both the opportunity to discuss what went wrong and the reasons for that. Bringing up general points without highlighting specific examples can put the employee on the defensive and become confrontational. Even if you know somebody has a particular personality trait, attacking with ‘You always…’ or ‘You never…’ is likely to make the situation worse.

As the adage goes, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers; bad or even just clumsy management will affect the level and quality of work produced. Adding some structure to your management can give you the confidence to inspire your team to work to their potential through good times and bad and, ultimately, means more success for your business.


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