By Dr. Jerry Fu

Becoming a supervisor for the first time is a significant milestone for any leader and often introduces an unfamiliar set of challenges. One of the most difficult issues for a rising supervisor to resolve is deciding how to address underperforming employees. Arguably, simply telling a new manager to train, transfer, or terminate the problematic employees oversimplifies available solutions. New supervisors need guidance for the best chance of success in their new managerial endeavors.

Let’s Examine a Sample Scenario

A pharmacy hires John as their new acting manager. His need to assemble a team to run the pharmacy led him to Lisa, a lead technician who worked in their previous company. He had never worked directly with Lisa but considered her an experienced addition to his team.

After hiring Lisa, John noticed that she opted to perform the easiest and most profitable work, leaving the other technicians with a difficult and time-consuming workload. She was welcome to accept praise, yet prone to deflecting blame when she made mistakes. She would highlight others’ missteps, no matter how small, and liked to call in frequently on short notice.

On a Friday afternoon, John gets a call from the pharmacy. Another technician says that Lisa’s patient was expecting a prescription delivery, and he had not received them. To ensure the patient got his medication, John authorized a hefty delivery charge to express deliver the prescription and fix her mistake. Lisa had ensured her patient of timely delivery, but she never communicated to the pharmacy a need to schedule a drop-off.

Before becoming a manager, John was likable amongst his coworkers. He felt comfortable offering input as an employee, but never as their superior. John wanted to give Lisa the hard feedback she needed, but he struggled to engage and dreaded a conversation with Lisa on Monday.

Assessing the Situation

Based on the example expressed above, John struggled with transitioning from coworker to supervisor. Before he was hired as their superior, his coworkers heeded his advice. He liked the influence he had as a friend and colleague but never had to hold anyone accountable.

What consequences would a manager encounter if they do not address an underperforming employee?

  1. Resentment adds up. When big problems stay unresolved, frustration builds. Lisa has established an unhealthy work environment in her short time working at the pharmacy.
  2. Productivity is lost. When people are frustrated, they lack focus. Employees and supervisors focus on the mistakes that were made rather than how to actively resolve the issues at hand.
  3. Nothing gets better. If a manager does not address his concerns with an underperforming employee, they will remain unaware of their need to improve. The employee has already demonstrated his defensiveness. However, giving the resistant employee feedback leaves the team better off than offering the employee no input at all.
  4. Turnover. At some point, those who consistently meet the standards of the pharmacy will not appreciate the leniency Lisa has received. Other technicians may quit as a result if John continues to allow Lisa to behave as she does. While additional research on an employee’s reputation prior to hiring her might have spared the team from her actions, it is up to management to initiate a discussion with an employee on how to improve if she is not meeting their standards.
  5. Lost revenue. The pharmacy’s bottom line will suffer. Doing work with a dysfunctional team is tedious and exhausting. Their capacity is lower. Time spent regarding patient complaints replaces the time needed for dispensing prescriptions. Fewer prescriptions mean fewer insurance reimbursements. Doctors will question the delay in prescription processing and grow weary of the pharmacy’s ability to maintain patient satisfaction. These lost relationships inevitably translate to lost business.

Being a leader involves making necessary but unpopular decisions. His employees may not always agree with his choices, but John will earn the respect of his employees if he proves himself as a reliable and effective leader.

What actions should a new manager take in this situation?

  1. Schedule a conversation. Conflict-averse people like John find reasons to avoid confrontation. Waiting until he felt courageous enough is what got him in trouble, to begin with. To prepare Lisa for this conversation, make sure to set aside some time to sit down and discuss the issue.
  2. Remember his responsibility as a leader. A rising manager must trade their popularity for responsibility. At his previous company, John could be a likable and supportive colleague, whose advice was a welcomed commodity. As a manager, feedback comes with ensuring accountability. A business cannot thrive without engaged employees. Since John is open and transparent, he decides to publicly share how his inaction contributed to less-than-stellar operations in the first month. Next, he clarifies company standards and commits to support the team as they strive to meet those standards.
  3. Understanding employee needs. John schedules one-on-one meetings with each employee to ensure they understand what he is asking of them. At the same time, it gives employees a chance to express what kind of support they would need in order to succeed.
  4. Allow the employee to disagree. In Lisa’s one-on-one, John will get a chance to give her specific feedback. If Lisa pushes back, it will be unpleasant, but as a leader, John must be able to deal with the discomfort. In fact, allowing her to defend or justify her performance and replying accordingly will allow them to have a productive dialogue. It is also John’s responsibility to inform her of the violations against company policy.
  5. Set clear expectations for desired behavior. As stated in step 2, a large part of effective leadership is setting straightforward expectations. If a manager’s requests are vague, employees may not understand that it is important to the manager. Instead of, “Be on time,” a clearer statement is, “The pharmacy opens at 9:00 am. In order to be ready to serve patients when we open, technicians must report to work and clock in by 8:50 am.” After this experience, John realized that other helpful Standard Operating Procedures include clear instructions on shift change hand-off. Lastly, since this is a new company, John and his supervisor should spend time creating an employee handbook so all employees understand the parameters they are expected to operate under.
  6. Follow through. Having policies in place is not enough. One of the biggest challenges in building a great culture is accountability. If a manager like John does not enforce company policy, the business will suffer because of it.

Learn More.

New managers like John should continue to seek out training on how to give effective feedback. A good book to start with is 101 Tough Conversations To Have With Employees.

If you found this post helpful, check out these sources for more information on new management.

Adapting Leaders Website

Dare to Lead Podcast on Spotify

Lastly, check out Megan Chavez’s blog on The Truth About Hiring Biases for tips on how you can hire better in your new management position!