Executive Suite

Help Employees Rediscover Their Mojo

Act quickly to reinvigorate capable employees performing below their potential.

April 15, 2013

Certainly, some underperforming employees simply lack motivation or the skills to get the job done properly. But before pointing a finger, take a look in the mirror: Is your credit union taking an active role in training, motivating, and empowering its people?

Three human resource (HR) executives weigh in on causes for poor employee performance, and share tips for eliciting and rewarding improvement.
Give specific feedback
Sometimes employees test the waters with their behavior to see where the boundaries lie. “They might not even be aware of what they’re doing—or of the impact—until it’s brought to their attention,” observes Lorraine McCormick, HR vice president at AmeriCU Credit Union, Rome, N.Y., with $1.16 billion in assets.
“It doesn’t happen oft en, but it’s important to address poor behavior early on,” she adds. “Point it out and set clear, measurable expectations within specific time periods. Use training, coaching, and maybe shadowing of more seasoned employees, and in most cases people will correct their behavior.”
Sometimes, new employees or people in new roles are embarrassed to ask questions. “We try to instill the concept that we’re a learning organization, and that it’s better to ask than to make mistakes— someone else probably has the same question,” says McCormick.
Staffers who lack motivation could be lazy, but they also might be bored with their jobs. Turn the tables by raising the bar. “They might have accepted a position they feel is below their skill level, to get a foot in the door,” McCormick notes. “If the position doesn’t fully utilize their talents, consider giving them a special project that does.”
If you sense that life issues are becoming a distraction for some employees, connect them with your Employee Assistance Program.
To motivate employees, managers sometimes offer time off or casual days, or group luncheons for team successes. They also recognize employees at staff meetings and publish success stories.
“Our performance appraisal process compensates performance with merit increases and sometimes bonuses,” says McCormick. “We recognize top performers with quarterly awards, or select them as subject matter experts for project teams.”
Employees want to know you appreciate their contributions, and it pays to acknowledge them in concrete terms. “Give specific feedback,” McCormick suggests. “Instead of saying, ‘Nice job,’ let them know you understand the effort that went into their work. Say something like, ‘I appreciate the research and testing you did; it really improved efficiency.’ ”
Other motivators she recommends are involving employees in their own development plans, keeping lines of communication open, showing them respect, being a good role model, and offering positive reinforcement. She advises against using negative reinforcement and punishment, or assuming you know what motivates individuals.
AmeriCU’s leaders believe education hones performance. “We provide a wide range of training, from operations and compliance; to management and leadership; to skills like public speaking, time management, creativity, and innovation,” says McCormick. “ It translates to more confident employees, satisfied members, and more business.”
NEXT: Coach; don’t just supervise

Coach; don’t just supervise

Training is also an important employee development strategy at Interra Credit Union, Goshen, Ind. A focus on helping employees succeed and providing continuing education is vital, notes Rhonda Eslinger, HR director of the $645 million credit union.
“Our training department is very proactive, even after the initial employee training process,” she says. “Trainers meet with front-line supervisors [regularly] to make sure they continue to coach employees. Our trainers are focused on helping employees provide exceptional service and they do a wonderful job.”
Eslinger has observed that poor performance oft en results from supervisors’ lack of coaching. “It could also be poor training, or if not that, a lack of personal motivation,” she says. “Those things don’t happen too oft en around here.”
If employees have performance problems, their supervisors assess the problems and perhaps recommend refresher training. Trainers are available to polish the supervisors’ coaching skills as well.
The supervisor and employee develop an action plan for improvement and meet for weekly reviews. “We do whatever it takes to help the employee succeed, and the vast majority of times it works,” Eslinger says.
Interra has an incentive plan for front-line staff. It recognizes superior performance monthly at staff meetings and issues payouts quarterly. The credit union is looking into developing a similar plan for back-office and administrative employees. “That’s a little more complicated,” says Eslinger. “Front-line employees have easily measurable goals, such as tellers balancing their drawers or member service responsiveness. It’s a little less straightforward for other staff, but we’re working on it.”
Criticism and negative feedback are ineffective, she emphasizes, especially if there’s no guidance or a plan to change poor behavior. “A mistake supervisors make is focusing only on errors and failing to catch employees doing things right,” she says.
“We have exceptional employees who are dedicated to member service,” Eslinger continues. “We make sure managers are held accountable for employees’ performance. That gets taken for granted sometimes. You need to train supervisors to coach, not just supervise. There’s a big difference.”
Ask what employees need
Fear of failure can impede performance. “If employees have been successful and you give them something new—especially without adequate training—they might not want to take the risk and won’t perform as well as when they’re knowledgeable and trained,” says Mark Steiman, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Kinecta Federal Credit Union, Manhattan Beach, Calif., with $3.17 billion in assets.
That’s why it’s important for managers to establish open communication with employees and look for coaching opportunities. Leaders need to be encouraging, to ensure employees have the resources they need, and help them break down barriers to success.
“You have to ask the right questions to understand an employee’s mindset,” Steiman says. “He or she might not understand your expectations, or know how to get started.”
When employees seem unwilling or unmotivated, Steiman says it’s helpful to explain how their roles fit into the bigger picture, and how a job well done will benefit themselves, their peers, and the entire credit union. “Sometimes we get so focused on tasks that we forget to convey why what they’re doing adds value,” Steiman says.
Conversely, managers oft en provide goals but not the road map to get there. Steiman calls that phenomenon “over-empowerment.”
“If you only tell an employee to get started, a big project can seem overwhelming. If you help break it down into key milestones, it becomes much more manageable,” he says.
Kinecta Federal recently refreshed its vision, mission, and core values. Its training programs focus on reinforcing those messages and on shared ownership. “If you have a philosophy of accountability, people don’t make excuses,” says Steiman.
Training begins with new-employee orientation, which the CEO opens by explaining the organization’s philosophy. “He continues to perpetuate transparency and accountability in our culture, and he communicates with employees oft en, including a weekly email,” he says. “It motivates employees and lets them know he’s approachable and relatable.”
All executives strive to send consistent messages— through quarterly town meetings at branches, for instance. “But we spend most of the time asking questions and listening,” says Steiman. “At every employee meeting I ask what I can do for them or what they need from me. You’d be surprised at how open they are, but if you don’t ask, they won’t tell you.”