“Rob isn’t doing his job.”
I received this message, in similar forms, from two different team members this week.
Rob—a normally strong performer back in the office—wasn’t delivering his reports on time or fully engaged during their weekly Zoom meetings. His emails were often one-liners, they said. Essentially, things were falling through the cracks.
Since the beginning of the pandemic and its ensuing crisis, our collective nerves have taken a hit; remote work hasn’t helped much to calm them. In fact, our new routine of working remotely can make even the most skilled leader feel less confident about keeping people accountable. A large part of this fear stems from the challenge of giving feedback virtually, which then snowballs into more anxiety and confrontation avoidance.
As CEO of my own company, I’m a big advocate for leading with compassion. People are dealing with innumerable struggles right now, from lack of childcare, to health care concerns, to financial uncertainty; things are difficult across the board.
But, as Ron Carucci writes for HBR, compassion is not the opposite of avoiding any critique or cowardly limping away from constructive feedback. More so, it requires an eye to meeting goals, while also practicing sensitivity. Carucci writes, “You can demonstrate your care for an employee’s struggles by both acknowledging their hardship and redoubling efforts to help them succeed.”
So, how exactly can we as leaders be sensitive to the times without ignoring performance problems? In my experience, the key is taking a more diagnostic approach. Here are a few ways you can effectively help employees remotely.
Begin with tracking down the weakest points
Before attempting to address any issues, the first thing you need to do is, so to speak, get our house in order.
This means not reflexively zeroing in on an underperformer’s faults and assuming everything comes down to a lack of initiative or poor attitude. Instead, you should also look at broader organizational areas that might be weak. For instance, are you working with outmoded technologies, relying on spreadsheets alone to manage workflow, or overusing communication platforms?
Considering all the factors that could influence a person’s performance gives you the information needed for when you talk to them one on one. But it also confers another advantage. According to Carucci, you’re also breeding trust: “You want your employee to trust that you’ve thought through the situation and considered it from their view,” he writes. “They will be less likely to use those broader issues as an excuse.”
Equally important as identifying organizational weak points, is managing your own feelings of frustration or guilt. “Healthy accountability starts with a leader acknowledging they may play a role in someone’s underperformance,” Carucci explains. It also allows you to separate your emotions from what’s factually true.
According to Harvard Business Review contributor Sabina Nawaz, manager distancing is frustrating employees and stalling work.
Ask yourself the following: Have you been clear in setting expectations? Regularly checked-in with them? Provided needed support and resources so they can perform their work properly?
As leaders, it’s vital we ask ourselves the hard questions and see how a gap in our own leadership may be contributing to the problem.
Choose guidance over disapproval
Once we’ve asked ourselves the right questions, it’s now time to ask your workers. Carucci recommends having these conversations through a video call, so that you are better able to read each other’s tone and expressions.
When you speak, start by checking-in with your employee first. How are things going at home? How is their workload? Then address the problem you’d like to resolve.
Here’s where many leaders often stumble: Rather than go full into corrective feedback, try listening first. Ask relevant questions like why they think a specific issue is happening, and then let them carefully describe the situation. This doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook (especially if they start pointing fingers or refusing to take responsibility).
The point in confronting someone who is underperforming isn’t about rehashing all their shortfalls, it’s about finding the best way to resolve the problem at hand.
Once you’ve identified what the issue is, Carucci suggests asking, “What would you change if you could?” or “What can we all learn from this?”
When you opt for guidance (rather than showing your disapproval), this opens their imagination and signals that you trust their ability to improve. “Reassuring your employee that you are okay with missteps, as long as they are corrected and learned [upon], will help empower them to solve the problem on their own,” Carucci adds.
Create a shared sense of accountability
After a one-on-one conversation with the person underperforming, there’s one final issue you need to address.
In the case of Rob, the worker mentioned above, it wasn’t just that his colleagues took note of his struggles that was cause for concern.
Instead of reaching out to him directly and offering their support, they came to me with their complaints. This meant that it wasn’t just Rob that needed to be kept accountable, it was the entire team.
Remember, accountability within an organization isn’t a one-way street. It’s important that each team-member feel empowered to tackle issues without involving you as their immediate response. As Carucci puts it “Your biggest contribution to those you lead is helping them be, and contribute, their best.”
During these extraordinary times, what will keep you and your team afloat isn’t simply making sure everyone is performing to the best of their abilities. It’s a shared sense of commitment to one another that will keep your head above water.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.