When an employee repeatedly fails, one of the reasons is often that they don’t know what showing up looks like. It’s common for managers to shorten conversations ahead of alignment in the name of speed. But that rush can cost you, especially with an unreliable employee. An investment in alignment upfront enables good performance and also provides the framework to address poor performance if it persists. Your job as a manager is to create a process that acts as a performance scaffold to strengthen an employee’s alignment, capability, and motivation. This process should support the person from the moment you assign the task to the moment they deliver it. Their usual excuses should also be rejected. But of course, exactly which boards you need in that scaffold depends on the person’s specific disabilities. Work through a process that sets them up for success and removes potential. Then when the employee fails to deliver and goes back to “but, but, but…,” you have all the fodder you need for a performance management conversation.
How do you handle an employee who delivers poor results and only offers excuses? Getting angry is not the right solution. And micromanaging only increases your workload and teaches them that you are accountable, so they don’t have to. So what are your options if you don’t rely on someone to deliver?
The alternative is to shift from people-reliance to process-reliance.
Let’s consider why an employee fails. This will provide clues as to where a more robust process could remove the pretexts. First, they may have no idea what you expect from them or what it takes to do a good job. That is an alignment issue. Second, they may lack the knowledge or skills to accomplish the task – a competency problem. Ultimately, they may lack the motivation to get through the line (or out of the gate). To be successful, an employee must understand what to do, know how to do it, and want to do it.
When an employee repeatedly fails, one or more of the foundational pillars are missing. Your job is to create a process that acts as a performance scaffold to strengthen their alignment, capability, and motivation. This process should support the person from the moment you assign the task to the moment they deliver it. Their usual excuses should also be rejected. But of course, exactly which boards you need in that scaffold depends on the person’s specific disabilities.
Provide a Clarification of Purpose
One of the reasons employees fail you is that they don’t know what showing up looks like. It’s common for managers to shorten forward alignment conversations in the name of speed. But that rush can cost you, especially with an unreliable employee. An investment in alignment upfront enables good performance and also provides the framework to address poor performance if it persists.
Start by focusing on the purpose of the job. Establishing goals leaves little room for excuses about differing perspectives, motives, or end goals. Starting with a goal can also help if the person is not strategic and can’t see the big picture or if they are self-serving and tend to prioritize their own success over the team’s. You want to say what you are trying to accomplish. Who is this for? How does the beneficiary define success? Where does this work fit in with other initiatives or commitments? Answering these questions will reduce the opportunity for the person to claim they don’t know what you want.
Once you’ve aligned with the work’s purpose, you can paint what the good, bad, and unacceptable outcomes are. But unfortunately, this is another step that managers often skip. I call this the Valentine’s Day effect; failing to say what you want and being disappointed when the person doesn’t deliver. And in the case of an employee you already know, failing to define your expectations will almost certainly set yourself up for disappointment. To provide a rubric for their work, describe the minimum standard. What would you consider a home run? What results are worrying or do you see as a failure? Answering these questions eliminates the possibility that the person will pass off a bad job as “good enough.”
When you clarify goals, you remove excuses for alignment.
Align with the Optimal Approach
The second major reason an employee may make excuses for poor performance is that they don’t have the skills or knowledge to do what you’re asking. If your concern is tied to gaps in human capabilities, your process should go beyond what they need to achieve and examine how they can achieve it. Depending on your specific concerns, there are a few ways to discuss this.
If you suspect that the person may be taking shortcuts or neglecting important components, get some details about the necessary steps. Share effective methods and provide examples from past projects. But don’t make the mistake of doing all the talking; their nodding heads could not be translated into understanding. Instead, find out how they process the request by asking them to share their plan. Then you can provide any necessary course corrections with questions that focus their attention, such as, “What steps will you take to make sure the finances are in place?” Answering these questions will eliminate the excuse that they don’t know how to tackle the project.
Another possibility is that you are concerned not about their technical but their people skills. If you’re nervous that they’ll damage stakeholder relationships, make interpersonal issues as important as technical ones. Work together to map out key stakeholders, their stake in the project, and any idiosyncrasies you may have identified. Who makes the decision? What are they looking for? What influenced them? And beyond decision makers and influencers, encourage people to think about other people who have valuable perspectives that they should include. Answer these questions to avoid excuses about insufficient support or bad partners.
You can also mitigate capability gaps by thinking about the decisions they might make and pre-qualifying decision criteria. That way, you can be more confident that they will call you to endorse. You can broach the subject in a variety of ways, including asking about the criteria the person would use to evaluate any decisions or trade-offs. How do they prioritize behaviors when there is no perfect option? And so that they don’t get hit with trying to have it all, it helps to explain which criteria should influence how they implement the decision but not which decision they make.
If you agree to the process, you remove many excuses for capability.
Raise the Stakes
We discuss alignment and capability issues. A third possibility for their failure is that they lack the motivation to get the job done. If your lack of faith is related to their lack of oomph, emphasize their obligation and explain what is at stake if they fail to deliver.
You have carrot and stick options if you need to add a little incentive. Dangling the carrot will connect the successful delivery of work to various positive outcomes, such as how it affects their reputation or future opportunities. On the other hand, holding the stick involves listing negative consequences if it is not delivered. And if possible, add some intrinsic rewards to the extrinsic outcomes by talking about what the person enjoys about this type of work and what reward they get from doing it well.
There is another issue of motivation to prepare; the person who starts out full of vigor and energy but throws up their hands at the first sign of trouble. In that case, your process should inoculate the person against failures by preparing a plan B ahead. Take the time to anticipate what might go wrong and develop a game plan. What issues do you expect to arise? How do they handle those kinds of problems? Be sure to know in which situations the person will need you to thrive and what you expect them to cope with independently. Addressing events and potential pitfalls will make it clear that you expect the person to persevere.
When you communicate the results, you build motivation.
If you’re dealing with someone who keeps putting you down and making excuses about why it’s not their fault, don’t waste your energy hoping they’ll miraculously become trustworthy. Instead, work through a process that sets them up for success and remove excuses from the process. Then when the employee fails to deliver and goes back to “but, but, but…,” you have all the fodder you need for a performance management conversation.