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10 Tips for Social Entrepreneurs: How to Talk to a Problem Employee

October 7, 2013

By Judy Parkman

In my time as a human resources director at the Skoll Foundation, I have talked many social entrepreneurs and one question that seems to come up often is: How do we attract and keep the best people, and at the same time address the issue of low performers?

We’ll talk mostly today about how to address poor performers, but interestingly the two are very much related. Allowing a poor performer to stay on a team indefinitely brings the team down and affects everyone’s job satisfaction.

Social entrepreneurs have very high ethical and moral codes regarding how they want to treat people. So, it’s understandable that they may consider giving a poor performer honest and direct feedback to be unnecessarily harsh. In addition, many think of their teams as extended family, which can make giving tough feedback more difficult. However, in the world of social change there is important work to be done and we need the best possible talent to do it. Thus, we need to “keep the bar high” for all. It seems that many social entrepreneurs have extremely high standards for themselves, but feel guilty applying those same standards to others.

There’s no doubt that managing teams and all that goes with it can be hard. In particular, it should always be a difficult decision to let someone go. However, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision to address poor or lackluster performance head-on. Giving open, honest, direct feedback is your means to improve performance and engaging in this type of “constructive conflict” is also beneficial for creativity and progress.

Some of my tips:

  • Lose the guilt. Don’t apologize for having high standards. And don’t compromise your high standards because you are afraid of offending people. Having high standards and expressing them doesn’t meant that we stop treating everyone with dignity and respect—that’s a given.
  • Give direct and specific feedback. Talk about the behavior and the results that you see, compared to the results that you want. Talk about a plan to get to what you want and the likelihood of that happening. For example: “I have been looking for a well written document describing x y and z. What I have gotten are general notes that don’t meet the objective of using this document to make business decisions.”
  • Work out a plan to meet the goals. Leave with a very clear understanding of what needs to change, how you are going to look for it, how you will determine if things are getting better. It makes sense to follow-up in writing to make sure everyone stays on the same page.
  • Have a timeline which sets a reasonable expectation of when you expect to see substantive and sustained improvement. If it doesn’t happen in the time set forth,  it may be necessary to come up with an agreed upon transition to either a new role or out of the organization
  • Attitude matters. It’s fair to say, “I need someone who can be a positive presence on our team.” Don’t dismiss poor interactions with others as being too subjective to talk about; having a can-do attitude and being flexible are important. With a small staff, people need to roll up their sleeves all the more.
  • Address the problem head on – don’t be vague. It might feel easier for you to let it go, but that’s not the best thing for your organization.
  • For people doing great work, be positive, but be specific. Instead of just saying, “Great job,” say, “This part of your report was particularly helpful to us and here’s why.”
  • Practice. If you’re nervous about how you’ll come across when giving difficult feedback, role play with someone that you trust.
  • Depersonalize the discussion.. Talk about work product, the process, what you see, your perception of the work, don’t make assumptions about the person’s abilities or motivation.
  • If you don’t give timely feedback, then tensions tend to mount. Sometimes out of frustration, a manager will fire someone without taking the time to try a performance improvement plan.  This exposes the organization to morale issues and other consequences that can be avoided with a more proactive approach.

Learn more about Judy Parkman.

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