- People management is challenging for small-business owners, even when workers are productive.
- And when some employees lag on the job, leading a team is doubly hard.
- Small-business experts say clear communication, frequent feedback, and training are key remedies.
- This article is part of Talent Insider, a series containing expert advice to help small business owners tackle a range of hiring challenges.
People management is a perpetual challenge for small-business owners.
Even in the best of times when workers are engaged and productive, ensuring that everyone is paddling in the same direction to build the business isn’t easy. And when one of your employees isn’t delivering, leading your team is doubly hard.
Poor performers have “multiple negative effects on small businesses,” said Anthony Nyberg, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “They hurt your bottom line, suck up a huge amount of your time, and set a bad example for everyone else,” he said, adding that owners ought to take action “as soon as they recognize there’s a problem.”
The issue is even more critical today amid a national labor shortage, with small businesses struggling to find the workers they need. You can’t afford to have employees who aren’t pulling their weight.
Insider spoke with small-business owners and experts who offered advice on how to work with subpar employees to improve their performance. Here are their top tips.
Identify the issue and find a solution
The first step in dealing with an employee who’s coming up short of expectations is to determine the root cause of the underperformance. This takes time, effort, and many, many conversations, according to entrepreneurs and experts who spoke with Insider.
Daniella Cornue, the owner of Le Village, an 11-person childcare and coworking space in Chicago, has firsthand experience with this. A few years ago, she hired an assistant teacher who seemed bright and motivated but went on to struggle in the classroom. To figure out what was going on, Cornue set up a series of meetings with her to talk, ask questions, and troubleshoot issues.
“Over the course of our discussions, I got the sense that she wasn’t comfortable working with older kids — she wanted to work with babies,” Cornue said.
So, Cornue assigned her to the nursery, and the teacher’s performance dramatically improved. “The little ones gravitated towards her immediately,” she said. “Her spark was lit. Today, she’s a leader in our organization.”
Train and focus on skills
An employee’s underperformance can often come down to a lack of skills.
That’s why it’s important for small-business owners to set aside time and resources for training, said Vishal Gupta, a professor at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business.
“You need to make sure your people have the right information and equipment to be successful in their jobs,” he added.
The training material doesn’t need to be elaborate: Gupta said books, manuals, and even self-made recordings and videos could be helpful.
Gupta suggested, as part of the training, giving the underperforming employee small chunks of work with clear goals and targets. “That way,” he said, “you can more easily see where problems are occurring and do something about it.”
Communicate and set expectations
Finally, you need to clearly communicate expectations. Nyberg said small-business owners often neglect to do this because they’re stretched thin. “They’re so focused on tomorrow’s deadline or trying to make payroll, that they forget to talk to their employees about what’s going on and how all the pieces fit together,” he said.
As a result, some workers can miss key details, which in turn affects their performance. That’s why it’s the duty of the entrepreneur — the leader — to help them understand their role. “You need to explain how their activities benefit customers and the business itself,” Nyberg said.
This can often be accomplished through regular meetings. Gupta recommended having short meetings at the beginning and end of each day, where you lay out what you want to be accomplished. This can be done in a group setting if you have a small team, but the meetings can also be one-on-one, particularly if one of your employees is having trouble.
“Ask: What were some problems you ran into today? How can I help you come up with solutions?” he said. “This meeting may strike you as a potential time-waster, but it will save you time later.”