How to Hire and Retain Rockstar Employees for your Government Contract: Dealing with Low Performers

February 22, 2023 | Business Development, Government

If I were to challenge you to classify your employees as high, middle and low achievers, I’m willing to bet you can identify them pretty quickly. You’d likely come up with some truly high performers, a larger contingent of middle performers who serve as the backbone of your company, and a few low performers. This raises an important question: Why do we tolerate low performance? After all, what you permit, you promote. Think about what that phrase means and the effect low performers have on you.

If you have a low performing team member, how do you deal with the situation? Do you hope they will improve? Do you pray they will quit and solve your problem for you? In my experience, many leaders do not like confrontation, so they avoid having what we call “crucial conversations”–the interactions that make or break employee retention. However, these conversations might only be uncomfortable because your leaders lack training.

Low performing team members need to be dealt with beyond hoping and praying the problem will magically disappear. Remember, hope is not a strategy. When leaders allow low job performance to continue, it negatively impacts the entire team. Obviously, results are not what they could be, but it also impacts your high performing team members as well. In fact, if the gap between your high and low performers is wide enough, your high performers will become frustrated and leave the company. Low performers also prevent your managers from focusing on more productive activities, including time spent with high and middle performers.

Let’s review how to have crucial conversations in general–including a closer look at dealing with low performers. Depending on who you’re speaking with–a high, middle or low performer–the tone of the conversation will be slightly different.

  • High Performers: this is the easiest conversation to have. High performers need to be re-recruited. Let them know how important they are to your team and company. Learn how you can help your high performers achieve their goals and determine if there is anything that might cause them to leave the organization. Keep them happy.
  • Middle Performers: These conversions should also begin in a positive manner. Let them know they are a valued team member and important to the organization. You also want to coach them up and transform them into high performers. Suggest one or two things they can work on to get them to the next level and then follow up at an agreed upon time.
  • Low Performers: These are the most difficult and the ones many leaders tend to avoid. Again, I believe this is due to a lack of training. As a result, leaders tend to make serious errors, including in how they start the conversation. Here’s an example: I was mentoring a new leader who was dealing with a low performer and she wasn’t quite sure what to say. I suggested we role play the upcoming conversation. She began with, “You know, overall I think you do a pretty good job…” I interrupted her and said, “ Great! Am I getting a raise?” She immediately realized the conversation was heading in the wrong direction. She was trying to be nice. After all, we want everyone to like us don’t we? The bottom line is this: these conversations should not begin with a compliment. As hard as that is to execute, it’s worse when you set the employee up for a friendly conversation, only to reverse direction. 

There’s a better way. In the book Hardwiring Excellence, Quint Studer describes the D-E-S-K approach for dealing with low performers:

  • Describe the subpar behavior or results that you have seen
  • Evaluate how you feel about the situation and how it is impacting the team and the company
  • Show the team member what needs to improve. Training is a must.
  • Know there will be consequences if performance does not improve. 

Then, summarize the conversation in writing. When you see them do something correctly, make sure they know. Reinforce that positive behavior and help them move up to become a middle performer.  If they continue to fail, however, you must move them out. Remember, there are only so many seats on the bus and they could be taking up a spot that could be filled by a high performer. 

If you have any questions about crucial conversations or dealing with low performers, contact me on LinkedIn or at [email protected]. And be sure to visit the blog next week for the final post in this series. 


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MYTH: Doing business with the government does not rely on relationships and does not require any marketing. All that is required finding opportunities on web sites and responding with quotes/proposals.

FACT: Having great relationships with government end users can provide more opportunities beyond RFQs/RFPs posted to government web sites. Some opportunities do not even require the government put it out for a competitive bid process so knowing someone could present more chances to do business. Furthermore, relationships also help build positive past performance history which is critical to winning future opportunities.

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