As if Covid-19 has not created enough challenges, leaders are finding that some of their formerly most productive office employees are not performing well remotely. And some empathetic leaders are avoiding initiating the coaching conversations needed to get these employees back on track. This is all too common in that in one study 18% of the executives surveyed said that holding employees accountable is their greatest weakness.

This guilt that leaders can feel has intensified as they try to be compassionate because of what their teams are going through during this crisis. And the challenge of giving coaching feedback in a virtual environment has even exacerbated this dilemma.

Everyone recognizes that employees who aren’t keeping up should not be left alone to flounder. So, the question is how leaders can best address struggling team members while being sensitive to the fact that their work lives have been uprooted.

It’s easy to assume that the issue is simply a lack of employee initiative or commitment. But assumptions can keep the true cause concealed. Before addressing an underperformer, leaders might ask themselves whether the root cause of the issue is an organizational variable or leadership variable.

Working virtually may have amplified some organizational weaknesses that are limiting employee performance: cumbersome processes, prior workarounds, outmoded technology & employees who are used to running between offices may now be experiencing endless texts & emails. Leaders will want their employees to trust that they have thought through the situation comprehensively – including those factors out of the employee’s control.

Today stress levels are high & emotional reserves are low. Working in isolation can lead to anxiety, anger, defensiveness & irrationality – within both frontline employees & leaders. Leaders frustrated with an underperformer may need to assess the presence of these emotions within themselves as well & set them aside in order to address the root cause of the underperformance.

Better leaders acknowledge that they play a huge role in the quality of their team’s performance & reflect on whether they have:

  • Been clear in communicating their expectations to their newly formed remote team
  • Provided the resources, coaching & feedback necessary for successful performance
  • Re-prioritized projects, deadlines & work assignments as needed
  • Exhibited any other shortcomings in their leadership responsibilities which might be contributing to this decline in employee effectiveness

However, the most critical leadership question is ‘How can I help this employee succeed?’ And exhibiting empathy should not be confused with lowering a leader’s  expectations. Not addressing a performance issue for fear of making an employee ‘feel bad’ is not being compassionate. It is rewarding unsatisfactory performance & extending the problem – thus making matters worse. Leaders are showing compassion when they double their efforts to help the employee succeed.

Connection starts with communication & communication starts with listening & learning. Employees feeling overwhelmed often – for any number of reasons – are hesitant to ask for help. So, during coaching conversations probing questions are very helpful:

  • What’s been going well for you with your current responsibilities?
  • What is getting in the way of you performing as you have in the past?
  • How has working from home affected your performance?
  • What challenges are you experiencing that I should be aware of?
  • Do you have the materials, equipment & technology you need to stay on task?
  • What can I do right now to help you?

The Covid crisis should not just be an excuse for employees not performing their jobs. And leaders still need to hold employees accountable for results. But the path to success might need to pivot & it is the job of a leader, to help employees discover that path. Leaders should always remain available. And these employees will probably require more frequent check-ins until they regain their prior performance level.

A leader’s greatest contribution to his/her team is helping them reach their potential. And when an employee falls short, the greatest display of compassion is helping them figure out how to get back on track. Why not adopt the perspective & express it to your team that it is your job to help them reach their potential – regardless of their working conditions?

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