David Henzel co-founded MaxCDN, a content delivery network based in Los Angeles dedicated to helping startups scale. On his blog he writes about what he has learned along the way.
Have you ever seen one of your rockstar employees suddenly pull a 180 and become anything but? It's not uncommon. When this happens, you need to be prepared to talk to them about what could be causing this change. Oftentimes, this performance hit has likely been caused by one of these four factors: debt, drugs, depression or death -- what I call the Four Deadly Ds.
Each of these can have a catastrophic effect on the performance of one of your team members. However, the problem rarely isolates itself to just one person. As an employee begins underperforming, their colleagues will likely have to step in and pick up the slack (often at the expense of your team's morale). To stop a small problem from snowballing, help your employees with these issues as soon as you notice them.
As one of the most common mental illnesses, depression is often one of the main causes of performance issues. Understanding the devastating role depression can play is essential to dealing with an employee's performance problems. Depression is a vicious cycle that feeds on itself and can cause someone to feel worthless, useless and out of control. It's disastrous for employee morale. Learn to recognize it and if it crops up, take action immediately.
I have seen this a lot throughout my years in business. Recently, a star employee (originally a highly productive and reliable team member) quickly became difficult to manage. For eight months, this individual was in and out of the office. Other employers might have sought ways to scale back support and distance themselves. However, I opted to keep the team member on board. In a short time, their performance was back to normal as if nothing had happened. More importantly, this friend and colleague was in a better place personally and mentally, due in no small part to our decision to dig into this problem and work through it, just as if it were any other challenge in the workplace.
If this Deadly D rears its head in your business, be sure you have a process in place to check in with your employees. The tragic reality is that without help, depression can lead to suicide, a very real issue in the startup world (despite being rarely talked about). Make sure professional help is available to your staff so you can keep a problem from spiraling out of control.
Debt can be crushing. Fighting it can feel like sweeping leaves on a windy day. Even the smartest, most successful minds in the world have their run-ins with debt-- and they don't always come out on top.
As an employee, mounting debt can lead to mounting stress. But stress isn't the only factor at play here: debt is almost a unique category as it lends itself to ferocious self-blame. This self-judgment is poisonous to a positive work ethic, as it can lead employees to doubt themselves, their skills and their capabilities. Keep this in mind as you talk to them and help them get back on top. Remember that by helping your employees through their issues, you'll often end up with a grateful, loyal and productive team member later on.
You likely already know this one. Drugs can quickly take a top-level employee and reduce them to your lowest-performing, least productive member of the team. Depending on the severity of the problem, you may see your best talent becoming increasingly unreliable and dropping the ball more and more often.
I won't delve too deeply into how to prevent drug use amongst your employees here; however, the first step is to understand that this could be a real problem you have to deal with. Too few employers recognize just how pervasive drugs can be in the workforce. By understanding the problem, you're better able to tackle it.
Death can be both the easiest and most difficult "D" to reconcile with. On one hand, employees tend to tell you when there's been a death in their world. They may request time, or just mention it simply to keep you in the loop.
However, despite the heads up, you may find that working with your employee in this emotional state is extremely difficult. Death can lead to depression, and everyone has different coping methods. Keep an eye on your team member as they work through their pain. Ask them how much time they need, and watch closely when they return to work and get back on their feet. In the aftermath of their tragedy, talk with them regularly to ensure that none of the other Deadly Ds are springing up.
Keeping Your Employees Motivated
By understanding these four issues, you put yourself in a position to recognize when they're affecting one of your employees. To help them work through these problems, you'll need to work hard to connect with your team on a personal level.
This is a process that you have to work on every day. Get to know your employees, what they're driving towards, and what they care about. This way, you'll be tuned in to behavior changes. You'll know when a family member is sick, or when someone is struggling under a crushing mountain of debt. This puts you in a much better position to help your team through their issues and get them the help they need.
Make this personal connection a priority. Because when your employees are doing well, your business does well too.
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