Q: I have a strong performer on my team who is starting to slip. He is missing deadlines, making errors and isn’t his usual positive self. I’m concerned about the work aspect, but also worried that there may be something else going on. How can I help him get back on track? — Annette, 49, chief financial officer
A: First, a caution. Your worry that there’s “something else going on” could lead you into risky territory. If you think there is a medical or other personal issue affecting his performance, be sure to get guidance from your HR team about what you can and cannot ask him about (or discuss with him if he raises it).
Now consider all the reasons an employee’s performance could slip, apart from personal issues.
How is his workload? One risk managers face with strong performers is that there can be a temptation to pile it on. No matter how good someone is, they will eventually hit a point where it’s just too much.
Does he like what he’s doing? Another risk with top performers is that they thrive on growth and challenge. Consider if his work may be feeling stale.
Is he rewarded for his performance? Consider if raises and bonuses have been meager or if he has been passed over for a promotion.
Is the overall work culture positive? If he has been an oasis of positivity in a negative culture, no wonder if he’s wearing down.
As you can see, there are many potential explanations, some of which are within your control as his manager. Look at the specific issues you have had with his work to see if these also seem like plausible explanations.
Your next step is to talk with him about your observations. Positioning it in this way will create a more emotionally neutral tone that will facilitate honest communication.
After all, I’m sure he is aware of his recent lapses, so avoiding an accusatory or overly solicitous tone will defuse potential defensiveness and put the emphasis where it needs to be: on addressing root causes.
Offer your observations and ask for his thoughts. Then listen. Prepare to hear things that may be uncomfortable; for example, issues he has had with you as his manager.
Get his opinion on ways to improve his situation. If he raises health or other personal matters, plan to provide any support you can on behalf of the company, as well as offer compassion as a fellow human.
You also have to keep the company’s interests in mind. Be sure you’re documenting issues and discussions just in case things don’t turn around. In the meantime, look for short-term solutions, including more direct oversight on your part, to ensure that work is getting done properly.
If performance is slipping because of dissatisfaction, identify and fix it if you can. If it’s due to other issues, support as you can. Seek a good outcome for both the company and your team member.