Picture this. The very best employee you've ever had just stormed into your office threatening, "If you don't do something about Mr./Ms. Nightmare, I'm out of here! They've messed up another job, and I'm the one who had to take the heat. You need to do something!"

As you listen, you think to yourself, ‘I'm short-staffed and the workload is going through the roof. I've got to figure out how to get everything done yesterday, and now this. What do they think I am - magic?' Of course, your actual response to this overwrought employee is that you'll take care of the matter immediately.

Sound familiar? Well, you're not alone. While you may not be able to conjure up a magnificently performing employee out of thin air, you do possess one of the best tools around for fixing Mr./Ms. Nightmare and keeping your best perfomer happy; it's called progressive counseling.

Progressive counseling is one of a manager's best defenses against mediocre performance and poor employee morale. Fortunately, using this tool is not as difficult as you might believe. With a little forethought, preparation, and follow-through, you have the ability to fix what appears to be impossibly broken. Who knows, by following the steps of progressive counseling you may be Mr. Magic after all.


As managers, we have the mistaken expectation that our employees know what is required of them. We've trained them. We've told them what they're doing right and what's wrong. We have even been a role model displaying footsteps they can follow. And in most cases that's enough. In the case of your problem employee, however, a more direct and clearly defined course of action is needed.

First, you must help your problem employee recognize the deficient performance without destroying their motivation. Then you need to clearly state the changes that are required and then hold them accountable for achieving and maintaining the positive outcome. In other words, your problem employee needs a detailed account of what is going wrong, where they're missing the mark, and a roadmap describing the steps they must take to reach the goal. And you must do all this in a positive and motivating manner. Sounds tough, but it's not as daunting as it may seem.

With a little planning, preparation, and practice the improvement message can be easily and positively delivered.

  • Planning and preparation. Before you consider meeting with your problem employee you must be prepared. The most crucial part of preparation is to first write down the problem, the fix, and the steps to getting it fixed. That's the secret of your success. If you are unable to clearly and unemotionally write down the problem and what needs to be done to correct it, then you aren't ready to deliver a clear and concise message. If you are angry, frustrated, or not sure of your desired outcome, then you must temporarily step back from the situation until you can. Acting in anger or haste will only add to the problem. Once you have your plan in place it's time to act.

  • Delivering the improvement message. Keep in mind when you're delivering the improvement message that the primary purpose of the message is to act as a catalyst for improvement. Once the process starts, everything else falls quickly into place.

  • Focus on the problem and not on the employee. Direct your comments toward the performance or behavior that needs attention rather than at the employee. By doing this you keep the employee from becoming defensive and ensure the conversation remains nonconfrontational. You will also ensure the employee's ego doesn't get in the way of hearing your message.

    "John, we received a call from Mr. Robbins. He said the compressor you installed was not operating correctly and he didn't get to check it out before you left the building. "

  • Be specific. Avoid broad statements or negative commentary. State the facts and ask for a response.

    Rather than saying, "You never check your work before you leave a job," say, "John, as part of our service commitment it's important to check out the system before you leave the job. Is there a reason why this didn't happen on the Robbins job?"

  • Listen with empathy. Listen to your employee's response without judgement. Ask questions and ensure your understanding. When you demonstrate concern, employees are more receptive to making improvements.

    "Well, John, I think I understand why you may have felt under these circumstances it wasn't necessary to complete the system check, but I'm sure you'll agree that following the standard checkout procedure would have saved us a lot of headaches and we would now have a satisfied customer."

  • Cut to the chase and assign the responsibility. Avoid long winded lectures and negative reprimands. Make your point at the beginning of the conversation and let the employee know what is expected of them in the future. As you conclude your counseling conversation indicate your support and ensure the employee knows they are responsible for their success.

    "John, I know you have the ability to do the job right. What I need and expect from you is that you will check out your work before it's signed off.

    "I need you to assure me that you'll meet with the business owner before you leave the building and you'll make sure he is satisfied with our work. If you run into any problems or can't get in to see the owner before you leave, I'll expect you to call your supervisor before leaving the building.

    "Do you have any questions about how the final system check is to be done and how it's to be documented? You're important to this company, and I want you to have the opportunity to be successful."


    Delivering the improvement message while continuing to motivate a problem employee is not easy. Maintaining a high-performace and motivated work team takes time, effort, and planning, but the return on investment can be well worth it. According to a recent survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, when employees perceive that all employees are held accountable for their actions, overall job satisfaction increased by 32 percent, thus improving performance and productivity.

    By regularly applying the principles of progressive counseling and helping Mr./Ms. Nightmare to become the peak performer you envisioned, you may find the magic after all.

    Carol Westberry, SPHR of The Westberry Group Inc., may be contacted at 813-677-1335 or thewestberrygroup@verizon.net.

    Publication date: 06/26/2006