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Helping managers who struggle with under-performing staff


Bill Esterson, director of training providers Leaps & Bounds, looks at how focusing on managers' skills and approaches can have a much wider impact on the effectiveness of staff as a whole.

Many of our clients tell us their managers struggle because of the under-performance of their staff. When we ask them to describe what goes on in their business, they often say that staff have a poor attitude and lack motivation. Sometimes a client will say they feel that many staff do the bare minimum they can get away with.

For some clients, because their staff don’t enjoy their jobs, they leave, and attrition levels are such that they have a constant flow of new starters, which costs a fortune in recruitment and induction training. And it is a fairly straight-forward process to measure the cost of lost sales, poor customer service and escalating complaint levels.

Sadly, this painful scenario is all too familiar, and if you are suffering from some of the problems described above, you may take some comfort from the fact that you are far from alone. The question is, what can your managers do about lack of motivation, lack of commitment and poor performance? How can you change the attitude of staff, so that they not only want to stay but want to perform at the next level?

One client in the telecommunications industry with whom we met recently, said that she had 50 per cent staff attrition and was resigned to the fact that there was nothing she could do. Her managers had been promoted from the ranks because they were good at their jobs, and because the operation was so busy, they had received little or no management training. The client then agreed that actually, it was the way that managers were managing their teams that was the cause of much of the problem she faced.

She felt that managers struggled to manage others and had yet to come to terms with not being one of the gang any more. They know how to do their previous job, but have few of the skills required to manage people. As a result, they tend to hide behind their pcs all day and would rather do their stats than coach or build their teams. They avoid difficult situations, so they don’t manage sickness or other absence effectively.

As our discussion continued, the client felt that actually the root cause of the problem was the lack of experience, support and training given to the managers. In fact, most of our clients see the management approach of their managers as the biggest single factor in any lack of commitment or poor performance by staff. In the remainder of this article, we shall look at some of the tactics, which can help to address the problems of poor motivation and performance in staff, by focusing on the way managers support and manage their teams.

Before looking at those tactics, let’s consider some simple questions about your business. Are you making a profit? If you are, then why should you worry about improving the performance of your staff and why should you invest in improving the way your managers manage? The simple answer is that if you don’t tackle poor performance now, it will become worse and so will the financial results. After all, what does it cost to recruit and train new starters? £3,000?, £4,000? And what is the lost cost of sales or cost of poor service and escalating complaints?

In short, can you afford not to tackle the causes of poor morale and performance? If you can, then good luck to you, but most of our clients believe that if they avoid the problems, then the competition will steal a march, and their results will suffer sooner, rather than later.

Another client I was talking to recently has attrition of 70 per cent in some call centres. He spends £1,500,000 every month on recruitment and induction training alone. Well worth his while tackling some of the root causes of costs running at those levels, I’d say!

So assuming you agree that you should tackle the problems of poor performance, why start with the managers? Well, for a start, it is a lot easier to start with the training and development of managers, than to start with the staff. And you can teach managers to pass on and develop new skills for staff as part of their roles.

Again, our clients find that it is a simple matter of influence and leadership. Team members will follow the lead of those more senior than themselves. Accepted behaviours within businesses are established by senior managers and if followed by junior managers, then staff are more likely to do the right thing. So, if you want your staff to build rapport and create a favourable impression with your customers, make sure your managers build strong working relationships with their teams and are fair and supportive of each member of their team.

I mentioned senior managers briefly. Where our clients have had most success in changing the culture of their businesses and in changing the commitment and performance of their staff, the process has been actively supported and promoted by senior managers. In one business we work with, the client has changed the culture to one of support and development after years of neglect. Results have gone through the roof as staff commitment and performance has soared. The reason? Because everyone from the most senior to the newest recruit has been included. Sales are actually up 60 per cent, and costs of recruitment and induction have steadily fallen.

So, if you want your managers to embrace a new approach, it makes a big difference if senior managers are involved in any development activity and demonstrate the desired behaviours back at work. Again, it is a question of providing a lead, and setting the tone for the way you want staff to operate. Our clients find that when they challenge their managers to start performing and give them the support and tools for the job, then staff respond with commitment and performance.

At the moment, your managers maybe spending much of their time reacting to problems, and complaints and carrying out administrative tasks. Managers operating in this way have little time to coach and provide the additional support and often this is because they have had little management training. Our clients find that when their managers spend the majority of their time coaching, formally and informally, supporting their staff and building relationships with their teams, staff attitude and performance is transformed.

Research suggests that improving staff commitment (from good management) makes the biggest single contribution to increasing profit. So while you can provide good working conditions, pay, bonuses and incentives, really people respond best to a supportive, encouraging culture, where they are truly valued for their contribution and as people in their own right. If your staff feel valued and supported and understand the direction of the business, they are more likely to be committed and to perform and stay.

At one financial services company, staff attrition fell from 46 per cent to 28 per cent, because managers changed their approach. And service levels were exceeded because staff were more valued and stayed longer. This all leads to increased profits, which can’t be bad!

So how do we help with under-performing staff?

Give your staff training and day-to-day coaching support so they can develop and enhance the skills they need. But above all ensure that your managers learn and apply the basics of coaching, performance management and how to manage themselves. These are the core management skills, which would stand them in good stead. Make the learning interactive and participant centred. We find that when people see for themselves, they are far more likely to remember and apply learning back at work. Strong commitment will follow if managers gain the trust and respect of their teams as they get to know and support each other. So, if your staff are under-performing is it due to a lack of management support? What is it worth to your business to improve the support your managers give your staff? Remember, your competitors will have the same problems. The question is, will they stay the same or improve and will you stay the same or improve?

Top Tips

  1. Senior managers are role models, so if you want your managers to support and improve their staff performance, your senior managers need to be the first to help their managers.
  2. Ten minutes spent on simple development techniques up front saves an hour later – time is saved by being proactive rather than reactive.
  3. To get staff to build rapport with customers, the easiest way is for managers to model the best behaviors themselves to their staff.
  4. Use the less busy times to encourage your managers to do their admin when staff need least support.
  5. Teach your managers the benefits of praise. Instead of finding fault your managers can give brief words of praise for helping a customer or a colleague.
  6. Just like top sports teams, team briefings are a great way to build spirit and to set up a positive atmosphere each day. At the start of each shift, managers can have a five minute chat with their teams to get everyone in a positive frame of mind.


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