Supportive task improvement

These resources can help you support an employee to improve their performance and productivity related to a specific task by working through potential barriers and building a plan for success.

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Supportive task improvement is a process that allows you to work collaboratively with an employee who is struggling to meet expectations related to a specific task. The principles and approach can work for any task or continuous process.

For example, if the problem is how a report is completed or how a widget is built, that’s the single issue to address. You wouldn’t include issues such as conflict, attitude or other behaviours that aren’t relevant to the task. If building the widget requires many processes over different timeframes, you would focus on only one process at a time. 

Breaking performance management down this way can help improve success, in the same way a baseball coach would break down individual skills and plays. 

This process can be applied regardless of whether an employee has a mental health issue. It’s focused on supporting success while they’re at work. A more stressful or punitive approach could result in that employee being unable to work at all. 

You may feel skeptical about a supportive approach to address just one task. But this process can prevent weeks, months or years of poor performance, and can help prevent negative impact on co-workers, the organization and the employee. 

The process

This process will help you support an employee to commit to a reasonable plan to improve their performance and productivity on a specific task. Don’t use this process if you’re beginning progressive discipline or planning termination. Implement this good-faith process when you’re genuinely striving to support the employee’s success. 

If you also need to address behaviours or multiple performance issues, you may want to begin with a broader approach such as Developing employee plans for leaders

Before your conversation with the employee 

Be clear about the purpose of the meeting. You might say to the employee, “Let’s meet on [day] at [time] at [location] to explore ways we can improve how [the task] gets completed. I’ll ask you to tell me what you do now, how long it takes and any challenges that might get in your way. I’ll then ask you to come up with a plan that makes it easier to be successful every time. I want to see how I can support you to do this well instead of jumping into a formal performance management approach.” 

Create a safe place 

Take an open and relaxed approach throughout the discussion. Check your body language, tone of voice and intensity. 

Ask, don’t tell 

This approach is about asking the employee how they’ll be successful. It’s not about telling them. Resist sharing your opinion and generally speak less and ask more. If the employee is silent at first, give them time to think through their response. They’re likely stressed to be in this meeting. 

Focus on success in the future 

The employee likely knows they fell short. And if they didn’t before, they do now because they’re having a conversation with their leader about doing things differently. It’s already humiliating enough. Don’t get into blaming or shaming. This could cause them to either become defensive or shut down. Instead, focus the discussion on how they’ll successfully complete similar tasks in the future.

Be optimistic and supportive

You may be frustrated with past performance. Act as if you believe they can do this and show you’re there to help. You never know what someone’s going through and how it may be affecting their performance. Stay supportive. It’s more likely the employee will take responsibility for their work performance and recognize that you tried to help. If you need to move on to progressive discipline, it’s less likely they’ll see it as unfair.

Be prepared, but don’t share up front

Know how you’ll measure success for this specific task before having the conversation with the employee. Be as clear as possible to avoid any misinterpretation of your intended outcome. Here are some things to think about when deciding on your measurement:

  • The requirement should be the same as for the average employee doing the same task. This helps you avoid any concern about discrimination. For example, the employee might have been exceptional in doing the task, but their performance or productivity slipped. It’s fair to expect them to meet the same requirement as other employees. 
  • Base it on objectively clear and specific measures, and not vague descriptors. For example, “excellent” or “high quality” are vague instructions and could be unreasonable. An example of a specific instruction is to ask for no more than one mistake for every 20 widgets on average.
  • Be clear on the amount of time it takes the average employee to complete the task, rather than the fastest possible time. Striving to go faster can happen after the first successful completion of the task. 

Don’t share this information with the employee in advance. It’s for you to familiarize yourself with the task before your meeting. In the meeting you’ll allow the employee to share their perspective of success first. This way you identify any differences in understanding and can coach the employee toward a reasonable goal.

Employee meeting

The Task improvement worksheet | PDF is for you and your employee to complete together. You may review the following notes beforehand. You know what success means to you and how the employee should be completing the task.

Here, you’re asking the employee to describe what success means to them, in their own words. It gives them a chance to show their understanding, and for you to see how it aligns with your expectations. Be open to hearing about either personal or task-related challenges you may not have considered.

  1. The task I want to focus on for this conversation is:
    • Be clear about the specific task you’re trying to get them to improve; this process isn’t meant to address multiple tasks at one time.
  2. Please describe for me how you would know you’ve completed this task successfully.
    • Consider asking what exactly makes the difference between failure, satisfactory and total success. 
    • Listen to the employee’s explanation of success. If it’s not aligning with your expectations, collaborate and coach so you both arrive at a shared understanding.
  3. Please describe what you need to successfully accomplish the task.
    • This could include:
      •  Information
      • Resources
      • Equipment
      • Time
      • Support
      • Training, mentoring or contributions from others
    • Continue to ask, “And what else?” until they agree that’s all they need.
    • Help the employee to also think about potential organizational challenges such as:
      • Competing demands
      • Unexpected changes
      • Lack of resources or equipment
    • Record anything you’ll do or provide to support the employee to complete this task. Then, set a reminder for yourself to follow through. 
    • Ask the employee to review your list and confirm it covers all they need to successfully complete the task.
  4. If we put these things in place, how much time do you think it will take you to complete this task successfully the first time?
    • Ask the employee how much time they need, rather than telling them, to help identify any additional obstacles or challenges. If it’s a lot more or less time than you think it should take, ask them to share a more detailed timeline. Listen carefully to their explanation. Consider if more time’s needed, or explore ways to reduce the time required.
  5. Given all your other work tasks, when do you think it’s reasonable to expect you to complete this task?
    • After this date you can check in with the employee to see how they’ve done.
    • Set the appointment date, time and location for follow-up. Make sure it’s in both your calendars.
  6. Please record both the times and dates when you’re working on this and any challenges or supports you encountered. 
    • You might follow up with: “While I know it’s extra work, I want to be aware of what’s helpful and challenging in finishing the task. For example, a cancelled meeting that gives you more focused time than usual could be a support. If a meeting gets added to your schedule, the lost time could be a challenge. Please track challenges and supports for our next meeting.”
  7. I’ll send you a copy of our discussion notes and a meeting reminder for our follow-up.
    • Do this as soon as possible after the discussion.
    • Here’s wording you can modify to send to the employee: “Thank you for the time you’ve spent with me today. Attached are the details of our conversation that include your plan for action. Please remember to track the time you or someone else spends on [completing the task]. And, please record any challenges or supports that affected your ability to be successful. We’ll meet again on [date, time, location]. If there’s anything you need in the meantime, please feel free to get in touch with me.”

Follow-up meeting

The follow-up date is dependent on the ability of the employee to complete the task successfully. Your meeting should be as soon as possible after the agreed-upon due date. A couple of days before, send a reminder to ask your employee to bring the time log and list of challenges and supports they recorded for the task.

It’s also important to know how success or quality was objectively measured by the employee. Following up will help you to either celebrate success or take further corrective action. There’s also a paper trail you can use if your next step is progressive discipline or ongoing performance improvement.

In your Task improvement worksheet, you’re provided with questions you might ask at the follow-up meeting, including:

  • How did you measure success?
  • What supported or hindered your success in completing this task?
  • What will you do differently now so you can be successful next time?

If the first attempt was successful, set up another time to see if they’re able to continue with the same level of success. Remember to recognize the employee’s effort. Stay supportive for one or more additional follow-ups to show your intention to be supportive.

Next steps

In most cases, there should be at least one more follow-up. This will help you decide if the success will stick or if there’s a better way to achieve success.

If the first attempt wasn’t successful, you can go through the entire discussion again. Make any adjustments the employee feels they need. The question(s) to add to this subsequent discussion could be:

  • Is there anything else you think might get in the way of you being successful this time?
  • What do you think should be our next step if this attempt isn’t successful?

If progressive discipline will be part of the process, let the employee know you’re giving them another chance before you begin the formal process.

Workshop resources

Resources available include workshop materials to facilitate a session with leaders who want to learn and adopt this approach, a process document to guide the leader, and a worksheet to use with the employee. 

Below are free, downloadable presentation slides, a facilitator's guide and a participant's workbook. All are ready to use digitally or to copy and print. 

What is covered in this workshop?

This workshop is intended to teach anyone who wants solutions to support successful task performance. This can include team leaders, managers, supervisors and human resource professionals. Union and worker representatives may also have interest in this approach to support members struggling with performance issues.

In the workshop, participants will learn:

  • What outside factors could influence poor performance
  • How to support employee success by engaging them in developing solutions
  • How to use the task improvement process

Additional resources

  • Listening to understand. Learn ways to hear what someone means beyond the words they say.
  • Why blame and shame don’t work. Recognize ways we might unintentionally make employees feel defensive or even angry.
  • Before you say no, ask why. Give employees what they need to do their job when you can’t give them what they ask for.
  • Developing employee plans. Develop a workplace plan for complex situations that can support performance and hold people accountable.
  • Supporting employee success. Use this comprehensive resource to help address issues such as:
    • Decision making
    • Tolerance of stressful environments
    • Dealing with work relationships
  • Accommodation. Use these resources to address the practical, personal and organizational issues so you can support effective accommodation of an employee with a disability.
  • Identifying workplace issues. Learn the questions to ask yourself and the employee before a potentially sensitive discussion. Topics include:
    • Considering your own needs
    • How to focus on solutions
    • Your own management style
    • Addressing workplace and mental health stressors
    • Evidence- or practice-based
    • Creating a list of resources for these issues
  • Responding to issues. Use these practical and action-oriented guidelines to address work issues, including:
    • Conflict
    • Performance
    • Accommodation
    • Impairment
    • Return to work
    • Violence
  • Supporting newcomers. Help protect the psychological safety and facilitate the success of employees who are new to this country.
  • Supportive performance management. Focus on solutions and employee success instead of problems and failings to help those dealing with life stressors, including mental health issues.
Contributors include.articlesChristine HildebrandDavid K. MacDonaldJamie HoryskiLindsay CrawfordMary Ann BayntonPhilip PerczakWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021Workplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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