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Dealing With Poor Employee Performance

March 30th, 2011

poorperformance [This post is part of the Performance Management: A Manager's Guide to Managing Talent series. Check out the rest here!]

As a manager, there are a few things we probably dread more than others.  I suspect managing poor performance ranks near the top of the list.  It’s not only emotionally draining for managers and employees, but it can also be time-consuming.   And while it’s never fun, managing poor performance is a foundational skill for a manager to possess.

Here are some tips to help navigate through the complexities of this dubious task.

1.  Tackle with a sense of urgency: The most important skill in dealing with poor performance, is to deal with it as it happens – DO NOT DELAY!  Let me share a quick personal story as to why I believe this is so important.

Early in my management career, I regretfully was one of those managers who waited until the annual performance review to unleash everything they did wrong throughout the last twelve months (I still cringe to admit I ever did that).  It only took a couple of very awkward performance reviews where the employee thought they did great, and I arrived with a “less than stellar” review.

In one case, I indicated their performance was so poor, if they did not improve, they were going to be terminated.  The issue…I knew I had not done a good job of informing them of ever missing my expectations.  I found it very difficult to look this person in the eye, knowing I hadn’t done good job of managing their performance.  While the feedback was accurate, I had failed this person and gave them no opportunity to work through the issues.  Needless to say, they left as soon as they could find something else.  Luckily that was awhile ago, and I learned from that mistake.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I managed this way.  I was probably conflict adverse.  Perhaps, I felt it was easier to ignore the poor performance, rather than to hire a replacement.  Or maybe it was any one of 13 Bad Excuses for Letting Poor Performance Slide.

After that experience, I committed to myself I would treat all performance issues with a sense of urgency.

2.  Don’t make it personal. When looking at poor performance, ask yourself, “what is the expectation you have for this role?” Then ask yourself, “what behavior did you observe and how does that compare to the expectation for that role?” **Note: I did not say the person.. When talking to an employee about poor performance, make the basis of your discussion around this comparison.

3.  Be specific: Generalities can be difficult for you and the employee to have a meaningful discussion.  Identify specific example(s) to illustrate where there was a disconnect between expectation and actual behavior.  If it’s a pattern problem, identify a couple of examples to demonstrate there is a recurring theme.

4.  Focus on impact: Negative behavior creates negative impacts.  When discussing poor performance, talk-through the negative impacts of the observed behavior.  My rationale for doing this is two-fold.  First, illustrating the impacts of poor performance, brings a level of awareness their behavior is greater than them self.  Secondly, I believe no one intentionally tries to do a poor job or impact other people in a negative way.  If they understand how the consequences of their behavior hurts other people, they will be more likely to avoid duplicating in the future.

5.  Collaborate on creating the solution: As you and your employee look to the future, I suggest starting off by asking the question: “what do you think you can do to remedy the issue and ensure it doesn’t happen again?”

This question is powerful for two reasons.  First, they acknowledge something needs to change.  Secondly, through collaboration, they will be more likely to buy into the corrective action plan, compared to you telling them what to do.

One trick I learned from a mentor of mine, was the notion of the one week follow-up.  He suggested putting a calendar appointment to follow-up on the performance discussion one week later.  It was not a formal meeting, but rather a reminder to reassess how the corrective action plan was working out.  I might use the reminder to stop-by for an informal check-in.  And if performance had improved, it was a great time to acknowledge and reinforce their efforts.  If it had not, we could discuss what changes need to be made.

Unfortunately, the best plans laid, do not always work out.  When that happens, it’s time to take further action (e.g., formal performance plan, termination, etc..)  However, that is a whole another topic for another day.

Want to read more?  For some additional ideas on confronting poor performance, check out 10-Point Checklist For Confronting Poor Performance.

QUESTION:  What one piece of advice would you give a manager when dealing with a poor performer?

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  1. kopstar
    April 12th, 2011 at 13:05 | #1

    I think the first question any leader should ask themselves when a team member does not achieve expectation is to ask yourself, “Have I given this person everything they need to perform and does the role or even task give this person the opportunity to do what they do best”.

    I find most poor performance situations generally stem from the manager in the first instance. Obviously if you have done all you can then the above is as good a way as any to rectify the situation.

  2. April 12th, 2011 at 13:06 | #2

    This post has great advice. One thing I would add in response to your ending question is “as the manager” be yourself when dealing with performance issues. I think because so many of us hate conflict we approach it in a more formal way, or in an angry way, rather than as a person to another person. Since we are not comfortable delivering negative messages we either want to justify it in our own mind by getting angry about the position the employ has put us in. Or we are just stiff and formal making the employee double uncomfortable. I try to remember we are all just people, and like you mentioned, it is the behavior or performance, not the person. People should still be treated the way we would want to be treated.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Chuck Hebert
    April 13th, 2011 at 08:36 | #3

    Sue – appreciate the comment. I completely agree with you. Being authentic is important at all times, especially in dealing with poor performance. It harder than it sounds. I always try to tell myself. The person is fine..I know them…but we need to discuss the performance here. Thanks again for the comment.

  4. September 5th, 2012 at 07:02 | #4

    Thank you for the information on this website, it is excellent and very helpful.

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