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HOW TO HANDLE UNDER-PERFORMING STAFF

One of the more challenging responsibilities of a senior leader is dealing with their team’s performance. Especially when a member of that team is underperforming.

More than once, I’ve heard leaders complain to me, “My staff just doesn’t get things done.” Missed deadlines, C-grade work, and backward delegation are terms used to describe their angst.

With sixteen years of pastoral ministry and twenty years of marketplace experience under my belt, addressing performance issues is no stranger to me. Experience has proven that dealing with performance problems in the business world, though stressful, tends to be easier than dealing with those same problems in the church world.

Tough decisions/conversations were more expected in the marketplace than in the church. In the corporate arena, when teammates got reprimanded or fired, there was little if any collateral damage to the organization. Tough decisions and conversations in the church world need to happen, but require a pastoral flair. Additionally, there is always greater potential for significant collateral damage in the church environment when dealing with poor performance.

So what’s a lead pastor to do? Stick his head in the sand and pretend performance issues (or attitudinal issues for that matter) don’t exist? Denial is not a good leadership strategy. Similarly, defaulting to an “off-with-their-heads approach” with underperforming teammates isn’t advisable either. If you fire people at the drop of a hat, you’ll hear the whirr of the revolving door when it comes to your staff. Good leadership is found somewhere between those polar opposites.

So I’d like to sketch out for you an approach to dealing with underperforming staff that I hope you’ll find useful.

Analyze

Ask yourself: What are the reasons the underperforming teammate is struggling? My first step is to self-analyze:

  • Was I clear with them about the outcomes I wanted?
  • Were those outcomes written down? (Especially with larger projects)
  • Did we agree on a reasonable deadline?
  • Did I ask them to do something they are ill-suited for?
  • Do I understand their work style?

And then I turn my attention to the teammate, asking him/her some of the following questions:

  • What got in your way with this assignment(s)? Here we may learn a few things: Maybe something difficult is going on at home. Maybe they struggle with organizing/prioritizing their workload. Perhaps focus is an issue for them.
  • Are you clear on what was asked of you here? If you discover you were unclear with this person, own it and strive for better clarity moving forward.
  • Do you understand why this task/project matters? Connecting their work to a bigger picture (the organizational vision) brings meaning to their work.
  • Am I asking you to do something outside of your ability?

Before we bring corrective measures, it helps to analyze first.

Correct

After analyzing, helping your teammate understand what you want/need from them moving forward is the next step. Here are a few items to consider:

  • Give the staff member a clear explanation of the project and what you want. What does a win look like from your perspective? This may need to be in writing. In order for this to be effective, you must know what you want from your teammate.
  • Give the staff member a clear why. As stated earlier, when we connect the dots between a project and the destination (vision) of the organization, it tends to raise the level of performance.
  • Give the staff member clear boundaries. Spell out the borders he/she cannot cross, in terms of deadlines, money spent, core values, etc.

Before we pull the trigger on personnel decisions, it helps to correct after we analyze.

Decide

In many cases, if we analyze and correct as outlined above, we’ll see better performance from our team. When that happens, celebrate! Let the staff member know what he/she did well. What gets celebrated gets repeated.

But what does a leader do when the performance continues to be less than stellar? What if a pattern of poor outcomes continues to emerge? What choices do you have?

  • Ignore it and hope it goes away on its own. Once again, not a recommended strategy. You’ll lose leadership cred with the high-performing people on your team if you refuse to deal with their underperforming teammates.
  • Deal with the performance problem head on. Using the tools outlined above, demonstrate your love and concern for the underperforming staff member by graciously telling him/her the truth. Give them time to grow and develop, but keep tabs on their progress.
  • If their performance continues to disappoint, then you could possibly reassign them to a different role. If the staff member is a good values-fit, but a square peg in a round hole, reassigning them can be a good strategy. Reassigning can be difficult for some leaders to figure out, We can help you with that (click here).
  • If you cannot reassign them, help them move on. Give them as soft of a landing as possible. One of the hardest things a lead pastor has to do is to tell someone they’ve worked together with, prayed together with, and built something together with that their time in the organization has come to an end. But it is an inescapable part of being an effective leader. I’m not doing a favor to a chronically underperforming teammate but letting him/her continue to fail. That’s not loving leadership—it’s fearful, dare I say, lazy leadership.

Who ever said leading was easy? Dealing with performance issues is part of a leader’s job. Refusal to grow in this area will put a lid on your leadership. So analyze . . . correct . . . and then decide. You owe it to yourself, to your team, to the organization you lead, and to the underperforming teammate. When I deal with poor performance, everybody ultimately wins. When I postpone these tough moments, everybody ultimately loses.

Rooting and praying for you,

John

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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