When a leader is interested in employee engagement, they must prioritize employee growth and development. Part of this responsibility includes taking initiative when employees exhibit low performance. This can be a difficult element of management; turning corrective feedback into a positive experience is not always easy.
There are, however, strategies to curtail low performance and provide constructive feedback. When implemented consistently and immediately, these strategies can help shelter leaders maintain working relationships with their employees, while simultaneously encouraging development and engagement.
- Cultivate a healthy work environment
Before a manager can address low performing employees, they must clearly communicate policies and expectations. They must also make a habit of praising employees who perform well — catching people doing things right. Additionally, employees should be encouraged to communicate concerns (like having inadequate materials or time), and actively seek solutions with the help of their superiors. Clear communication may even prevent poor performance, and can provide common ground to identify and problem-solve performance issues as they arise.
- Address errors as soon as possible
When a manager witnesses an employee making a meaningful error, it is important to find a time (ideally within that shift) to take the employee aside and have a conversation. It can be as simple as asking, “Hey, can we sit down and talk when you get the chance?” An employee is much more likely to listen to correction when they are corrected immediately. In fact, behavioral psychology tells us that correcting or reinforcing a behavior long after the fact is largely ineffective.
- Discuss the problems
Some errors do not happen consistently enough, or are not substantive enough, to require a discussion. For those circumstances, it is best to take a mental note; however, if low performance becomes consistent, it is time to initiate a discussion. Start off by asking if they know why they are sitting down for the conversation. This gives them the opportunity to speak first and own their behaviors. It makes the conversation feel less like an accusation and more like a dialogue. If they do not bring up the issue, then it is time to get specific.
- Address specific instances
It is important to be specific when addressing situations, e.g., “Today during your shift I noticed you did not scrub the kennel floors, you only sprayed them down.” This lets employees know you are aware of what they are doing. But beyond that, using specific instances, witnessed actions, and detailed accounts of errors prevents employees from feeling targeted — if anyone had made the same mistake, they too would have been corrected.
- Explain why correction is needed
When developing effective employees, it is important to align their responsibilities with the organization’s vision. If, for example, someone is not regularly cleaning the kennels as thoroughly as they should be, their leader should explain why it is so important for kennels to be clean (keeping the animals healthy reduces their stress and can prevent unwanted costs to the shelter, etc.). Explaining the bigger picture is crucial to constructive feedback — you are letting them know it is not personal, it is about helping the organization succeed.
- Set future expectations
Employees need to come away from these conversations with explicit knowledge of what is expected of them. Develop an informal or formal action plan to discuss and document their improved performance. Managers should follow up with these employees in the weeks and months after the conversation to check their progress. If progress is not made, disciplinary actions may be necessary.
Whenever you are giving feedback, it should be clear you are there to help — through your actions and words — and you want what is best for them and the shelter. Correcting employees with low performance in this way is not only effective, it also reduces unwanted emotional reactions and promotes self-discipline. When shelter leaders set consistent standards and expectations (and avoid favoritism), employees can trust them to be fair and supportive. And remember, make sure to identify and praise good performance, too.
At any point in this series, if you have questions or ideas you would like to share, or if you are interested in how SeeDS could help your own shelter, feel free to contact us at SeeDS@uncc.edu. We are a nonprofit organization, and our partnership with The HSUS and UNC Charlotte allows us to provide shelters with heavily subsidized grant services at a fraction of the typical cost.
The Shelter Employee Engagement and Development Survey (SeeDS.uncc.edu) was designed to help animal shelters learn, grow and thrive. Started by Dr. Steven Rogelberg at UNC Charlotte, we have worked with more than 100 animal shelters throughout the United States and Canada. We firmly believe the conventional wisdom that “it is the people that make the place.” When leaders make the well-being of employees a priority, not only will their employees become more engaged, but the animals and the whole organization thrive.
To help shelter leaders promote this kind of well-being and engagement, we are starting a six-month blog series. Every six weeks we will release a new blog discussing common issues facing shelters. Topics will include: creating a supportive work environment, being able to constructively correct employees, improving organizational communication, and finding opportunities for job enrichment.