Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How to Help Struggling Employees Find Their Space

Like most gardeners, I welcome the arrival of spring as an opportunity to review how my plants did last season, as well as to plan the work that will need to be done in the upcoming weeks. While inspecting my rose garden, I came upon one plant which I remembered had struggled to grow last summer and which made fewer blooms than the other roses, despite the fact that all of the roses had received the same amount of feeding and care.

In comparing this plant’s location to the other roses, I could see that it was starting to get crowded in because of the rapid growth of a nearby flowering bush. Given this and its poor performance last year, I decided that it would be best to move the rose to a new location where it could regain its strength to grow and flower. Of course, this wasn’t an easy decision since any such disruption to a plant’s growing cycle could possibly kill it. And yet, given how poorly it had fared last summer, I figured that the move, though risky, was still the best option to help get this rose back in shape.

In dealing with this problem of how to help this rose regain its ability to contribute beautiful blooms and foliage to my rose garden, I noticed that there were some interesting similarities between this situation and the steps employers can take to help struggling employees get back onto firmer ground.

1. Find out what’s behind the problem
When faced with a team member who is struggling to perform, there is often a tendency to label them as a ‘problematic’ employee, especially when they’re compared to other employees who are managing quite well when given the same resources and work setting. However, instead of being an excuse to criticize a struggling team member, these situations require further examination in order to understand why one employee would be having difficulties when given the same working conditions as others in their team.

As was the case with my rose, it’s possible that there have been changes in their environment which has impacted their level of productivity or ability to contribute to the shared purpose. Perhaps there’s been a change in the team’s makeup that has altered the team’s dynamics. Or maybe this employee no longer feels challenged in their role or believes that their work matters less to your organization’s shared goal. Whatever the case, the only way to know for sure is to take the time to talk with your employee and examine the situation in order to figure out what has changed and how you can help them get back on track.

2. Implement changes to help your employee regain their footing
When dealing with a struggling employee, it’s not enough to simply sit down and listen to the problems they’re encountering. A tangible change will also need to be made in order to give them the opportunity to regain their previous footing and their ability to contribute in a meaningful way.

After looking into the situation, you may find that this employee may need some coaching from their managers to help them reintegrate into the team. Or perhaps they should be given new responsibilities to provide them with new challenges to grow and learn. Or maybe your employee is like my rose in that they would be better served by being transferred to a new setting where they can give their full potential toward your organization’s shared goal.

3. Give your employee time and support to adjust to these changes
In deciding to transplant this rose, I realize that the plant still won’t grow as much as the other roses this summer as it will have the added complication of recuperating from the shock of being moved from the place where it has grown for the last few years. Although I’m not likely to see this year the benefits of transplanting this rose, I know by next summer the results will be more evident and by then this rose will grow and bloom much like the other roses in my garden.

Similarly, while these changes that you are implementing are meant to help a struggling employee get back on their feet, this shouldn’t be confused as being an instant cure-all for whatever issues have been causing your employee’s performance to suffer as of late. Bear in mind that your employee has no doubt been feeling like the weak chain in your team and getting over such feelings will take time, if not also some quick wins on their end to feel like they’ve got their A-game back.

While writing this piece, I came upon an interesting quote by Abraham Lincoln which fits rather well with the ideas in this piece:

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.

In managing our employees, it can be easy to focus on the problems they bring to our team or organization. However, as the quote above so eloquently points out, perhaps our company, our team, and the individual in question would be better served if we recognize more the unique value they bring to our team and with it, how we as leaders can help them to develop and strengthen that value.

As for the rose I transplanted, it seems to have taken the move rather well, with very little shock or disruption to its growth cycle. Not too surprising, since as anyone who grows roses can attest, they are fairly hardy plants despite their delicate appearances. No doubt the same can be said for many of your employees if you make the effort to move them into an environment where they can grow and prosper.

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17 Comments
  1. On May 27th, 2010 at 8:47 AM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    I am thrilled to hear your rose bush handled the transplant well! I love the connections you have made to struggling employees. This is an area where a lot of leaders struggle themselves.

    One thing that stood out for me is your quote from Abraham Lincoln. I find that most organizations and leaders do see the thorns and take the beautiful blooms for granted. A struggling employee is likely performing in other areas. Yet we tend to focus all our effort and attention on the one area or few areas that they are not performing. This creates a repetitive cycle where employees will begin to do just enough not to get caught. They still aren't living to their full potential, they are flying under the radar hoping the leader has bigger fish to fry.

    Negative reinforcement doesn't help the struggling employee change behaviors. We learn from the things we are doing well and by applying those behaviors to the areas where we struggle. The key for leaders is to balance their conversations with what's working and what's not working. With where the employee is on-target and where they are struggling.

    The other key is for the struggling employee to create action plans with the guidance and direction of their leader. Without action, nothing will change.

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece!

    Kelly

  2. On May 27th, 2010 at 11:44 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Jimmy – Absolutely. Let's face it – most of us are adverse to change, even if that change appears to be beneficial or helps to address a persistent problem. By setting up those early wins, it helps to reinforce the value of the change and in this case, will also give a struggling employee a better sense that these changes are actually helping them get back on track to becoming an equal contributor to the team's efforts.

    @Kelly – Thanks Kelly for that fantastic comment. You're right that there is this tendency to focus more on what a struggling employee is doing wrong than what tasks they're still showing a proficiency for. And let's face it – even employees who are struggling the most at work are not completely failing at their role in the team. If they were, they'd find themselves very quickly out of a job. So the key for employers is to find out what's happened recently that made a capable employee one that's now in choppy waters.

    It's becoming clear each and every day that a company's employees are their greatest asset. This makes it all the more important that organizations ensure that all employees are provided with the right environment to utilize their full skill set and talents to allow for the growth of both the organization and the employee.

    My thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  3. On February 3rd, 2014 at 8:49 AM Rachel said:

    How very considered. Not too common an approach in the business world, I imagine!

    I'm on a secondment to a new team and am very much feeling like I am not in bloom. Hopefully by next summer I'll be stunning!

    Thanks.

  4. On May 27th, 2010 at 11:45 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Tanveer:

    Re: #2 – A wise man north of Philadelphia once shared with me on the subject of tangible change, focus in on the small wins to help people feel more secure or in this case, regain their footing. Have a beautiful holiday weekend.

    Jimmy

  5. On May 27th, 2010 at 12:39 PM Mary Wilson said:

    Tanveer, this is a beautiful post about a very common problem in the workplace. Many leaders I have worked with or coached tend to focus on the thorns, and they want the performance to improve instantly. Having patience seems to be a key quality when working with roses or humans.

  6. On May 27th, 2010 at 1:11 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mary; I appreciate that. You're right that there's a tendency to focus on those performance metrics and for employers to get frustrated that an employee is not responding fast enough to the measures they're implementing to help them improve.

    That's why I think it's important for leaders to get out from behind their desk and see the situation from the vantage point of this employee and understand that not only do they feel that pressure to quickly rebound, but their own personal frustration at not contributing to the team's objectives as much as others. We all want to achieve and feel that our contributions matter to the shared purpose of our organization. By approaching these situations with this understanding, leaders can help their employees not only to slowly reap the benefits of the changes they implement, but also the space to get past their own feelings of frustration over having such difficulty.

    Good to see you here, Mary. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this discussion.

  7. On May 27th, 2010 at 7:26 PM Frank Dickinson said:

    Thank God for Spring or we would have nothing to write about eh? Thankfully my grass and your roses are keeping us in business!

    Great metaphor Tanveer. I have to agree with Kelly about the Lincoln quote. I have found in too many organizations the willingness to complain about the thorns and take the roses for granted.

    Just because your rose was struggling and needed help, did not in anyway whatsoever mean that it was an inferior rose.

    Your rose didn’t need you to gossip behind it’s back and assume that it, somehow through osmosis, understood that you had a problem with it’s performance.

    That rose in your garden needed one thing – help. It was up to you to do something about it.

    Ahh employers could learn so much from tending roses.

  8. On May 28th, 2010 at 12:30 AM Megan Zuniga said:

    I love your analogy about the rose and the employee. This is why it's tough to be a leader. You must be patient and empathic. I agree that you must first find out what's wrong and why the employee is not performing well. It's important that management also take care of their employees and their well-being.

  9. On May 28th, 2010 at 5:24 AM Sally G.s said:

    Good morning Tanveer!

    If you garden as well as you connect the dots between analogies ~ you likely have the most glorious garden imaginable.

    As everyone's noted here, human beings are always more than the sum parts of their struggles. Leading with Compassion and ensuring an employee's environment is conducive to growth and productivity is ultimately the most efficient way to achieve departmental goals – though it may not appear that way at first.

    Here's another quote from Abraham Lincoln that fits as well. What a brilliant man he was!

    "Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing."

    Great Leaders see beyond the shadow to the real thing – and begin the process to enriched productivity there. Oh, and to Frank's point — they don't gossip about the roses behind their backs either.

    Excellent post!!

  10. On May 28th, 2010 at 11:39 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Frank – Nice extrapolation of the rose analogy, Frank. And you’re right that the troubles this rose was encountering didn’t reflect the contributions it normally makes to my garden. Indeed, when its at its full strength, it produces some of the most fragrant blooms in the garden. Likewise, the same applies to employees who now find themselves struggling to keep up in their organization – their current situation shouldn’t change the reality of their past contributions and their ability to do so again when given the proper conditions to shine.

    When we consider how much time and resources companies spend to develop their employees in the first place, it only makes sense to help them even more when they start encountering difficulties at work.

    @Megan – Absolutely. The mark of true leadership is not someone who expects others to simply do their bidding. It’s someone who recognizes their responsibility to help their team members succeed in reaching their objectives. And as such, this makes it incumbent on them to not simply dismiss an employee who is having difficulty as being unproductive, but to find out what is hampering their abilities and what you as their leader can do to help remove these obstacles to help them get back on track.

    @Sally – Thanks Sally. I do so enjoy toiling in my garden, all the more so the last few years as my girls express an interest to lend a hand so they too can have the satisfaction of watching the garden bloom, knowing they played a part in making that happen.

    That’s another great quote from Lincoln that again demonstrates how our focusing on the wrong aspects of a person often leads us to not appreciate the value they bring, either to our organization or to our lives.

    @Debra – Hi Debra; nice to see you here and I’m glad to hear we share the same view in how to approach such employees. Granted, it’s not an easy situation for managers to deal with, or even a desirable one given how often it requires showing empathy and understanding for the emotional state of your employee at this point.

    But this is what distinguishes those who manage from those who lead, in that those who understand leadership realize that you have to appreciate the whole person and not just their technical aptitude, in order to help them to contribute their full potential toward the team’s shared goal.

    My thanks to you all for these wonderful comments and for adding so much to this delightful conversation.

  11. On May 28th, 2010 at 6:44 AM Debra Holland said:

    This topic (difficult employees, not roses) is exactly what I've been writing about in the last few days in my book about dealing with difficult people. Your thoughts are very similar to mine about how to handle this problem. If only more managers would do this for problem employees, the workplace would be a better environment for everyone.

  12. On May 28th, 2010 at 8:32 AM Drew Hawkins said:

    I really like your analogies in this post. There's almost always more than meets the eye with "problem" employees. It's just a matter of communication to establish what sort of changes need to be made to improve things.

  13. On May 28th, 2010 at 9:26 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Drew. While tending to this rose to help it regain its strength to grow and bloom, I realized that this approach is really no different from how we should treat our employees. Sure, companies love to celebrate the contributions employees make to help a company attain a shared goal, much as rose gardeners love to invite family and friends to check out the beautiful blooms of the roses in their gardens.

    However, just as rose gardeners sometimes have to help a struggling plant regain its former ability to thrive and grow, so too must employers understand that it's also their responsibility to figure out why an employee is having difficulties as it's as much to their company's benefit as it is for the employee.

    Thanks again, Drew, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  14. On June 23rd, 2010 at 11:02 AM Aileen said:

    I really like how you associated a rose garden to your team of employees. It's true that each needs to be taken care of in order for them to blossom. One or two may need special attention and how these roses (employees) bloom are in the gardener's (employer) hands. Just like how some gardener's talk to their plants, it's the same with how employers should do it with their employees. Communication is one thing an employer and employee needs. Because everything starts there. By communicating, you'd be able to know the reasons why he/she is not able to perform well, so on and so forth. Inspiring words and actions from the manager may also be one step forward for a struggling employee to function well.

  15. On June 23rd, 2010 at 7:16 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Aileen; I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. I agree with you that the best place for leaders to start this process is by spending less time talking or issuing orders and more time listening to the ideas and concerns from those on the front lines of their organization.

    Thanks again, Aileen, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  16. On October 2nd, 2010 at 5:17 PM Sandra Duncan said:

    I realize this is an old blog post, but Google brought it to me at a most appropriate time! I am about to start a new position in which part of my responsibility will be providing support , instruction and accountability for underachieving employees.
    I have subscribed, and look forward to further words of wisdom….

  17. On October 2nd, 2010 at 5:55 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Sandra,

    Glad you found this post helpful and congratulations on the new position. When dealing with struggling employees, it's easy to compare them to those who are doing well and assume that they must be sub-par. The mark of a true leader is someone who recognizes that these employees need their support and encouragement, and perhaps even a shift in how they approach their responsibilities, so that they can use their abilities to their fullest. We have to remember that these employees were hired because the leadership recognized the strengths they brought to their organization. In these moments, it's what both the employees and their leader need to focus on to help get them back on track.

    Thanks again, Sandra for the kind words. I'm happy to welcome you as a new subscriber/reader of my blog and I do hope you'll share your thoughts and experiences in future discussions held here on my blog.

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