We are often asked about how to engage, or ultimately deal with non-performers. Many times people have waited so long, they have effectively narrowed their options to a single, less than ideal choice – to terminate the person. In a world where talent is the next big challenge, seems like we ought to be able to do better.

The next time you see someone not doing what you need them to do, begin with the assumption they don’t know what to do. You see everyone does their work in the way it occurs to them. That may be in line or in conflict with what you feel needs to be done. The approach they have chosen might be based on a previous experience, what they did the last time they were praised or to avoid doing something they dread.

Whichever it is, a useful approach is to ask them what they are trying to do and how they came to that choice. The manner you ask will have a lot to do with the answer you get. If you demonstrate curiosity, all things are possible. If you ask with a tone incredulousness – you’ll get the best defense or deflection they can muster. It never is productive to act like the person has already disappointed you before the conversation has even begun.

By demonstrating curiosity you allow the other person to reveal their thinking. It is important that you narrow the gap between what the two of you are using to evaluate approach and outcome – even if it takes more time. Being critical or bullying is never expedient. It may be a short exchange but the damage will linger for months. The goal is to develop a shared understanding of what needs to be done and how the outcome will be evaluated. You got that – you will find it has a “flywheel-effect”, that is, it will make other things go faster as well. This is where the time invested in this approach pays off.

We’d love to hear about what happens when you try this. Who knows – maybe there’s a pleasant surprise in it for you. Good luck!