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What to Do When Your Employee Fails to Perform and Continually Complains

Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my employees keeps complaining about her high workload. I have done everything I can to reduce her workload—hired additional staff, cut back her projects, and so on. Despite all this, she still logs overtime hours. She must give 120% when 80% would be sufficient, from my point of view. From her point of view, others are to blame for her situation, namely me, her colleagues, and circumstances. She seems unwilling to take responsibility and change things. I have the impression that she feels quite comfortable telling herself the story that she is the victim. She says she would like things to be different, but she doesn’t do anything about it. What can I do?

Wit’s End

Dear Wit’s End

I’m sorry you’re in this situation. Usually managers wait too long to address gaps in performance, so I want to commend you for addressing this gap early and often.

Here are five tips to consider.

Consider ALL Sources of Influence

I’m guessing one big contributor to your conundrum is an insufficient diagnosis. It seems like you’ve tried a lot of things, but I’m wondering whether you’ve addressed the RIGHT reasons this person continues to struggle. Do a diagnosis exercise to identify ALL the things that might be contributing to the lackluster performance. Behavior is affected by Six Sources of Influence:

  • Personal desires, wants, and values
  • Personal skill and knowledge
  • Peer pressure from others
  • Help or hindrance from others
  • Incentives and punishments
  • Tools, space, systems, processes

My colleague Cricket Buchler gave a fifteen-minute keynote talk on these sources of influence a few years back. Once you have scanned the larger landscape, you might better understand what’s a barrier versus what’s a small annoyance.

Make The Invisible Visible

One of the best ways to influence someone is to point out undesirable natural consequences of their behavior. For example, if you want to discourage someone from lying, you might point out the effects of others not trusting them. If you want to encourage someone to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, you might point out mortality rates in helmetless motorcycle crashes. I want you to consider the following: Who is suffering because of your employee’s performance? Is she suffering because of her own performance? Help her make the connection between her own suffering and her own performance.

Change the Conversation

It seems like you’ve had several conversations about performance, but that may no longer be the real issue. The real issue is that when you try to address performance, your employee blames others and won’t own her role or responsibilities. The issue has shifted from poor performance to not taking responsibility. So, change the conversation. Address and resolve the issue of taking responsibility so you can begin to talk meaningfully about performance.

Develop the Skill to Take Ownership and Action

Most people don’t think of responsibility as a skill, but it’s one of the most important you can cultivate in your life (It’s not simply a mindset you either have or don’t have). One way to help others get out of the helpless mindset and into taking ownership and solving problems is to ask some key questions. The first is this: “What am I pretending not to notice about my role in this situation?” The second question is explained well by my friend David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: “The next time someone moans about something, try asking, ‘So what’s the next action?’ People will complain only about something that they assume could be better than it currently is… [this] question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics.” Ask these questions of your employee. Invite her to reflect on them and discuss them. For good measure, ask these questions of yourself.

Don’t Continue to Lower the Standard

You have already shifted a lot to try to make work easier for your team member, but if she continues to struggle and refuse to take responsibility, then the role either requires too much or she isn’t right for it. Everyone deserves to hear honest feedback so they have the chance to develop and improve, but it won’t do you or her any good to keep her in that role if things don’t change. Nobody deserves “one strike and you’re out,” but no organization should be required to give someone endless chances when they aren’t able to meet expectations.

Good luck,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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13 thoughts on “What to Do When Your Employee Fails to Perform and Continually Complains”

  1. Devendra Gabhawala

    Excellent options shared by you, which will make the employee respected and listen, provoke his/her thought process for resolving the painful issue.

  2. Phyllis Boshell

    “What am I pretending not to notice about my role in this situation?” Reminded me to take a step back to give some thought and consideration to my role. What am I doing (or not doing) to get unstuck and moving forward.

  3. A. Balthrop

    There is a another perspective to this question that I think is not addressed – the possibility of the manager not actually understanding what the workload truly is for the employee.

    I have witnessed first hand a case where a friend’s manager had no understanding of how the job was actually performed (what it took to complete the job tasks), therefore couldn’t understand what the actual workload entailed and kept insisting it was a time management problem for the employee. This was in instance where three people had left the company and all job responsibilities from those three positions were put on to the remaining employee, in addition to the responsibilities she had from her own job when those three people were still with the company. The manager has no idea how to perform the job duties of the three who left, and when told that their employee is overwhelmed blames the employee…the manager also does not assign any job coverage when this employee has time off so when they get back into the office it’s an even more overwhelming workload. It’s a terrible position for both the employee and manager as frustrations just continue to rise.

    1. Julinda

      A. Balthrop – I agree. Often managers assign work with little understanding of what it involves. I think this article totally skips important parts of the Crucial Conversation process and jumps to conclusions.

      1. Jen

        I also agree, I was in a similar position as the employee who had several leave and was given way more than a typical person in my role would have. On top of this, there was also a manager transition and hired from the outside of the company, really didn’t understand what all went into accomplishing the tasks at hand and the challenges that were occurring to slow the pace down on timelines, nor were they interested. Little to no feedback was provided, even when asked as a way to self-improve other than “you’re too stressed out”. At the end of that year, I was blindsided with the worst review of my working career but no one on one meetings or cancelled meetings, no trying to understand the why’s or trying to agree on solutions.

        It does at least sound like the manager asking the original question has done more than what I experienced, even if the true root of the problem hasn’t been discovered/solved.

        I can see both sides of the concern from the employee and the manager.

    2. Kimberly Ray

      I agree. I was struck by “she gives 120% when 80% would be sufficient” but doesn’t take ownership. Those two things don’t add for me. Is the employee overextending on the wrong things? Does the manager not understand what the employee is doing? And really, I don’t think I’ve told anyone to give just 80% effort – that will be just fine. While I like the thoughts put here for an answer, I think this odd phrasing missed something on the manager herself.

  4. Dale

    You missed having the writer check their assumptions about how long the work should take. Are they right about 80%, or is 120% of time excellent. A 4 minute mile is very good, but one can give you a 3 minute mile.

  5. Catherine Waiyaki

    I agree. One thing that almost always works for me is to ask them for their solution to the problem, what they will do about it.

    1. Paula

      Absolutely! Asking the individual for their [own] solution to the problem allows them to “think outside the box”, which will ultimately empower them to see their situation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. That is empowerment!

  6. S Schulze

    I feel the response for this situation is incomplete. It left me with if the individual doesn’t take responsibility, then they are out. The individual likely feels responsibility for her personal work or she wouldn’t be putting in the overtime. What if she she’s struggling with other’s actions/inaction? What if she’s struggling with infrastructure/tools? When manager’s start using “victim” terminology, they may also shut out important information about individual training or team behavior that is impacting the individual’s performance. Although the manager has taken steps to help improve the individual’s performance, it does not appear that the manager has evaluated the team’s interactions with the individual as a whole on how they may be impeding the individual’s performance. Once have more info on the big picture, appropriate feedback can be provided to improve both individual and team performance, and together, with shared responsibility for improvement, determine next steps.

    1. Julinda

      I agree. The manager needs to look into the situation more fully and try to figure out (with the individual in question) what the real issues are. Most employees want to do well and if they feel stuck or if they are “drowning,” there is a reason for it. The response in the article is rooted in “managers know what’s best and employees are just to do as they are told.”

  7. James Brown

    I think this is very good advice if the problem is what the manager says it is. However, sometimes we need to ask ourselves if we’re correctly analyzing the problem. In this case the manager shares a “point of view” of time required, says that the employee “seems unwilling”, and “has the impression” of the employees comfort level. These ambiguous words feel like the manager is telling a story about the problem (the employee’s attitude). This story may be correct, but the manager’s first role is to take a step back and determine the root cause so that the correct issue is being addressed. If it is indeed an attitude then Justin brings up good points. If the employee is truly overworked there are other steps to be taken.

  8. Diane

    I agree the response was superficial and unhelpful it is as likely as not that this problem is a management problem problem as an employee problem. The assumption that this situation can be described as “What to Do When Your Employee Fails to Perform and Continually Complains” is the problem. It could be better described as “How can I help an employee to understand that in their role perfection is not required and that getting everything done in a good enough manner is preferable to getting stressed out in an effort to make every project perfect”

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