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Managing the Marginal Performer
by Andrew E. Schwartz

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Every manager must, from time to time, deal with a marginal performer ' an employee whose work, for the most part, is satisfactory, but who regularly fails in some specific area or areas to maintain a adequate level of performance. The marginal performer's work can be classified as substandard in some cases, but it is not so poor as to warrant immediate termination.

It can be difficult to manage such a worker, yet it is the manager's responsibility to help the employee become productive. A manager confronted with a marginal performer can utilize two approaches to bring about a solution. Initially, the manager can try the 'therapeutic' approach, in which the employee evaluates his or her own performance. If this fails, the manager needs to rely on the 'punitive' approach, in which the manager directly criticizes the employee.

The Therapeutic Approach: The purpose of the therapeutic approach is to spark an employee toward improved performance through counseling. The manager's goal is to help the employee recognize the existence of a problem, accept the need for change, and formulate his or her own program for improvement. A therapeutic counseling interview includes the following steps:

The manager must critically assess his or her own attitudes and opinions. It is important to try to eliminate all personal bias and prejudice or at least be aware of any such emotions no matter how little effect they seem to be having. For the most positive results, the manager must be noncritical or at least noncommittal toward the marginal performer. In addition, the interview must be conducted in private, without interruptions, and with adequate time.

Setting a Comfortable Atmosphere
The employee needs to be made to feel relaxed and at ease. It is particularly important that no mental anguish is spent in guessing the interview's purpose. It is not necessary for the manager to 'build the employee up' with praise about favorable performance, but it is desirable that the atmosphere is friendly and constructive.

Promoting Self-Appraisal
The simplest, most forthright tactic is to explain to the employee that there are problem areas. Elicit self-analysis from employees about their jobs, focusing on those areas where they feel that their performance could be improved. Once employees begin discussing unsatisfactory performance - or at least elaborating on problems they are encountering on the job - the manager can pursue the problem areas. Asking, rather than telling the employee, becomes the key to an effective discussion. Through these questions, the manager keeps the employees on the subject and gets them to suggest ideas for improving performance.

Andrew E. Schwartz, CEO, A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Boston, MA a comprehensive management training and professional development organization offering over 40 skills specific programs and practical solutions to today's business challenges.

Copyright, AE Schwartz & Associates. All rights reserved.
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