"*" indicates required fields

The basics of managing poor performance

By Nicole Weber

One of the most common pain points managers talk to me about is dealing with poor performance. This can show up as disrespectful behaviour (like ignoring or arguing with reasonable directions), not pulling their weight as a team member or just not doing the job they were employed to do. There’s no doubt that managing poor performance can take a lot of time and energy. Many managers don’t know where to start, especially if the issues have been going on for a long time.

Ignoring poor performance means that your high performers will feel resentful and reduce their efforts to meet the lowest performer’s level. After all, if someone else is allowed to get away with bad behaviour why should they bust their butt? Research shows that as humans we all have an inbuilt sense of fairness and this really kicks in when it comes to having colleagues who are ‘passengers’ instead of contributors.

I’ve managed big and small teams over the past 20 years, I’ve been a HR Manager and now I coach managers to get the best out of their people by leveraging strengths. Here are my top tips for dealing with poor performance. Keep in mind that these are a starting point to get you out of ‘hair tearing’ phase and into action so you can get poor performers back on track.

1. Address poor performance early – don’t ignore bad behaviour or lack of performance. Believe me when I say this; ignoring it will NOT make it go away. When you notice poor performance get really clear on what the issue is so you can describe it to the team member. Also check that you aren’t reacting to them personally. We’re human beings so we don’t like all of our team members equally. A good question to ask yourself is ‘would this be an issue if another team member behaved this way?’.

2. Know and leverage strengths – poor performance can often be the result of overused or underused strengths. Strengths are our natural or default way of being in the world. We default to our strengths especially in times of stress and when we overuse our strengths they can show up as weaknesses. Here’s an example; if someone is particularly talented in the strength of communication when they overuse it they can send long rambling emails, be chatty, and distract their colleagues by pulling them into long conversations.

When you’re dealing with a poor performer try putting on your strengths finding glasses. Think about the person’s strengths and see if you can spot the one that’s being overused. This will help you frame the conversation with the person in terms of which strength they might need to ‘dial down’ (the one that’s being overused) and which other strengths might be more helpful to their performance. If the language of strengths is new to you, I’d suggest taking a strengths quiz so you can find out about your own strengths, and getting your team members to do the same. (Read more about using CliftonStrengths for teams, and talk to me about getting more from your team with strengths).

3. Start with a clear and curious conversation – name the specific issue or behaviour that you are concerned about. Don’t fluff around or try to protect the person from the truth. As Brene Brown says ‘clear is kind’ and this starts right at the beginning of the conversation. Once you’ve both sat down (somewhere you can both speak freely and openly like a private office) start the conversation with ‘thanks for making time to talk with me. I need to speak with you because you’ve come into the office after our 9:00am start time three times this week. I’d like to understand what might be happening from your point of view’. Clear, direct and curious. This opens the conversation without accusations, just a statement of the facts.

Listen to the person’s point of view. Once you understand the situation better you can move onto what needs to happen for the person to meet expectations. Ask them what they think is expected of them so you can make sure they clearly understand what they need to do in future. This is also a good time to point out any strengths you’ve noticed that they might be overusing.

If the team member isn’t clear about expectations and you need to be more direct, tell the person what you DO expect rather what you DON’T expect in terms of performance. This is called using an active request rather than a passive request, and research has shown that active requests are far more likely to get results because there’s less room for interpretation. For example if you ask someone ‘not to be late’ there’s room for interpretation. What does ‘late’ mean? Does it mean showing up one minute after 9:00am or 5 minutes after 9:00am? An active request would be ‘I need you to be at your desk, computer switched on and ready to take calls by 9:00am.  (You can read more about active vs passive requests in ‘Dealing with the Tough Stuff’).

4. Empower the person to take ownership – ask them what they will do to address the issue. Some managers I see can get the conversation started but then feel so uncomfortable about addressing poor performance, they go into rescue mode. They might say ‘we can work on this together’ or ‘how about we get you some training?’. This sends the message that the manager and the team member are both responsible. Ultimately the team member is the only person who can step up. You’ve had the clear and curious conversation (see step 2) and agreed what needs to change, now you need them to act. A great question is ‘what will you do to achieve (the agreed outcome)? A follow up question is ‘do you need any support from me or anyone else to do that?’

5. Document and follow up – keep written records of conversations from the very start. This doesn’t need to be formal; it can just start with an email confirming what you spoke to the person about and what you both agreed would happen next. Ask the person to acknowledge they’ve received the email and invite them to ask any questions if anything is unclear to them. Also let them know that you’ll follow up with them within a specific timeframe. I’d suggest a follow up 2-4 weeks later. This gives them time to action what they said they would do and get some results on the board. If it’s left any longer than 4 weeks the conversation will be a distant memory and it sends the message that the issue wasn’t all that important to start with. By documenting conversations that include what was discussed, what was agreed and the timeframes you’ve got a clear record to go back to. If the person doesn’t follow through on what you’ve agreed and you find you do have to start a formal performance improvement process, you’ve already laid the groundwork for that to happen.

Managing poor performance can feel uncomfortable, inconvenient and at worst downright scary. If you get in early and consistently address poor performance, you’ll be well on the way to setting a culture where great performance is celebrated and ‘passengers’ aren’t tolerated. The great news is that the more conversations you have to deal with poor performance, the easier they will get and the more confident you’ll be.

For more on getting the most out of your team, click here.

If your team isn’t reaching their full potential, or needs coaching and advice on staff conflict or staff engagement, or if you would like to boost your leadership skills and confidence, get in touch for a 15-minute, no obligation discussion on how we can help.