Eleven ways to encourage worker productivity at your AE firm

Consider these 11 tips to deal with the complicated reality of underperforming workers and how to make them better.

By Morrissey Goodale August 28, 2023

Your firm has a mountain of backlog to process—and at the same time, leads keep pouring in. It looks like more bright days ahead filled with opportunity and optimism, and you want to make as much hay as you can before the weather turns. But you’ve got a real problem, and you don’t really know what to do about it—some of your key employees simply don’t share the same level of urgency you do and refuse to get out of second gear.

Even more troubling, the examples they continue to set are starting to take root in the firm’s culture. More than once you’ve muttered to yourself, “You know, ‘work’ is included in ‘work-life balance.’” You’d love to say it out loud, but you’ve got to bite your tongue—sometimes clean through.

After all, you can barely staff the work you have now, never mind the two giant projects that are going to hit next week. You can’t afford to tick someone off at this point and essentially do your rival’s recruiting for them. But how much more can you stomach? They know they can take advantage of the situation and your good nature, so that’s exactly what they will continue to do. You can see it developing as plain as day in a number of ways, including, but not limited to:

  1. Reduced work effort: You’re seeing shorter workdays (and fewer of them), limited effort and clear lines drawn in the sand about the lengths they’ll go to achieve a certain level of quality.

  2. Lack of initiative: Forget about going above and beyond their job responsibilities. You’ve seen next to nothing in terms of new ideas, improvements or innovations that could benefit the company.

  3. Missed deadlines: More and more deadlines are extended or missed entirely, and no one but you seems to care all that much about it.

  4. Selective client engagement: Only the plum projects with the cool clients get attention while bread-and-butter projects with the “dull” clients are left understaffed or with a far less experienced team.

  5. Limited knowledge-sharing: They hoard knowledge and expertise to make themselves indispensable to the company and suddenly silos are popping up where they never existed before.

  6. Unwillingness to adapt: They use their established position to resist adapting to new technologies or methodologies, daring you to push them out of their comfort zones.

  7. Minimal engagement: On the rare occasions when they do show up for company activities, team meetings or company events, they still aren’t really “there.”

  8. Coasting on past achievements: They came through in crunch time—delivering that giant project to a happy, grateful client—and were compensated handsomely for it. But in the last six months, they’ve throttled it way down, which is bad enough—but they still feel entitled to a big raise and bonus at the end of the year.

While you admit to yourself that frustration is likely clouding some of your observations and interpretations, your patience has run out. So, what are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?

Dealing with employees who might be underperforming due to a perceived lack of consequences can be tricky. It’s important to approach the situation with a balance of understanding and accountability. Here are some constructive and respectful ways to address the challenge:

  1. Start a dialogue: Initiate a conversation with underperforming employees to discuss their performance and any concerns they might have. Create a safe and non-confrontational space where they can express their thoughts and feelings about their roles, workloads and any challenges they’re facing.

  2. Set clear expectations: Define performance expectations for their positions, including responsibilities and outcomes. Make sure they understand what is expected of them and how their performance contributes to the success of their teammates and the firm.

  3. Give regular feedback and coaching: Provide consistent and rapid feedback on their performance, highlighting both strengths and areas that need improvement. Offer guidance and coaching to help them enhance their skills and address any performance gaps.

  4. Establish performance improvement plans: If the underperformance continues, consider implementing a structured PIP. Outline specific goals, timelines and actions the employees need to take to improve their performance.

  5. Present development opportunities: Whether it’s offering specialized training, skill development, or growth opportunities, show that you are invested in their professional growth. This level of commitment and engagement on your part can spur underperforming employees to contribute at a higher level.

  6. Instill accountability and establish consequences: While being respectful, make it clear that consistent underperformance is not acceptable and will have specific consequences, such as loss of privileges, role reassignments, compensation adjustments or even termination. Discuss the impact their level of performance has on teams, projects and the company as a whole.

  7. Check in regularly: Schedule periodic one-on-one meetings to monitor progress and discuss any challenges they might be facing. These frequent check-ins demonstrate your commitment to their success and gives them a chance to address challenges and concerns.

  8. Involve them in the solution: Ask underperforming employees for their input on how to improve their performance, address challenges, and enhance their engagement.

  9. Recognize performance: Recognize and acknowledge performance improvements. Publicly celebrate successes and milestones to motivate the employee and show that their efforts are valued.

  10. Document: Keep records of discussions, feedback and any improvement plans. This documentation can be helpful if the situation escalates or if you need to provide evidence of ongoing efforts to address the issue.

  11. Part ways, if necessary: If the underperformance persists despite your best efforts, consider parting ways. You simply can’t allow the firm to be held hostage by those who consistently put themselves above their co-workers, clients, and the firm.

Keep in mind that every employee is unique, and there might very well be underlying reasons for their behavior. Your approach should be tailored to the individual while maintaining a consistent standard of performance and accountability across the team. No special deals. The ultimate goal is to foster a culture of continuous improvement and mutual respect so employees want to fully invest themselves in the success of your firm.

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