Compassion For Poor Performers

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” Plato

Managers are often faced with the dilemma of the “problem employee”, someone who chronically underperforms, arrive late, misses important meetings, or has conflicts with others.  Many times, if the employee is retained, he or she winds up feeling disengaged, isolated, and angry.

Co-workers and managers view these people as difficult, lazy, incompetent, over their heads, resistant, insubordinate, prickly, stubborn or unintelligent.

It may surprise people to know that the under-functioning employee is actually suffering. He or she feels low self esteem, health problems and stress.  Companies need to take time to find out the reasons why the employee is not functioning adequately and that can sometimes involve a huge change of attitude on the part of management.

It involves compassion.

Adopting a compassionate attitude can be the first step in resolving the problem.  In our practice, managers greet this suggestion with impatience.  It’s understandable. They’re at the end of their ropes with the employee and believe that avoiding the situation is the best solution.  But that doesn’t work – taking a second look with a sympathetic eye may be the answer.

When managers revisit the problem through the lens of compassion, they often uncover surprising things.  For example, supervisors have discovered that their employee has a learning disability that the staff member is afraid to admit.  Once this issue comes to light, many of the worker’s behaviours suddenly make sense.

For example, rather than being a sign of insubordination, one manager found that a staff member’s tendency to miss important meetings was a symptom of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the ideas being discussed and the worker’s inability to track abstract concepts quickly.  Once this dilemma was understood, the manager and the employee worked out a way the employee could track the logic of the conversation at a pace she could handle.

A synopsis of the meeting was circulated to all involved that specifically itemized the ideas discussed and their implications for the company.  The distilling of the main ideas and their implications, helped the employee reflect on the ideas and decisions at a slower pace. Her talent for generating novel solutions to entrenched problems was tapped through this method.

The simple solution of detailed minute-taking helped the worker to re-engage at work. That improved her reputation.  Without a kinder second look at the situation, the employee would have continued languishing and the company would have suffered costs in lower productivity.

Frustrated managers may be reluctant to take a compassionate look, but the practice can net some surprising results.

Taking a compassionate view requires four steps:

Acknowledge your frustration

Leaders will find themselves saying inwardly: “This employee should…..”; “I shouldn’t have to babysit this person….”; “What is wrong with him….”;”I shouldn’t  have to deal with this…..” when dealing with difficult staff people.
If these thoughts are prevalent, it is a signal to look closely at how you are seeing the employee.

Ascribing Negative Traits and Motivations

Frustrated managers will be firm in their belief that the employee is somehow bad or behaving in a certain way on purpose. Or they’ll label the employee lazy, stupid, or egotistical.  Nursing negative beliefs about the staffer is a sign that you are no longer open to other possibilities.  This severely restricts the potential for novel solutions to the problem.

Be Curious

Once you have noticed that you are set in your negative view of the staffer, ask: “What else could be going on that might explain why this employee is struggling?”  This step might be difficult at first.  Anger can block compassionate thinking, especially when the employee’s behaviour is somehow being taken personally by the manager.  It is hard not to see employee behaviour as a reflection of the manager’s leadership ability. Instead, try re-focusing on the employee.

Identify Alternate Explanations

Review past efforts to make changes and what they resulted in (especially the negative outcomes), for clues as to what else may be happening.  Talking to the employee empathically can also help.  Asking questions about how the leader can help them better do their job can be effective in attempting to generate alternate explanations.

For example, in one such conversation with an inexperienced travelling customer service representative, the manager asked what was the most difficult thing about customer visits?  The employee cautiously replied that it was hard to know when to see them and how many to see in a day.  “What would help you figure that out?” was the manager’s next question.  The staff person replied, “I’d like you to tell me who you want me to visit and how many times I should go.”

As a result, the employee, who seemed to refuse to take initiative and be pro-active, benefitted from this micro-management.  She was encouraged to report to the manager daily and a schedule of daily activities was created to which she adhered.

By taking a compassionate eye to employee issues, managers can generate solutions that they might not have been thought of.  Recognizing their frustration, not avoiding the problem and analyzing negative opinions of the struggling staff person is the best way to generate solutions to seemingly intractable employee problems.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:


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