Are we afraid to tackle poor performers?

At some time all managers will be faced with a poor performing team member. However, when faced with underperformance, how many ignore it, either hoping it will go away, or are frightened to deal with it for fear of breaching the minefield of employment legislation?

The good news is, there is no need to be afraid.  If you pay attention to some simple principles, you can manage under-performance effectively, legally and with confidence. Now we have cleared up that myth, how do we go about it ?

Principle 1 ; Ensure people know what they are supposed to be doing ?

Well there’s a revelation …………

Have you ever thought that you may have a talented employee who is under-performing because they are spending time on the wrong things?  Role ambiguity will often lead to under-performance and conflict, with people stepping on each other’s toes. People who are unclear about where they are supposed to add value may retreat into their comfort zone and contribute little.

Agree a job description for every person, making sure it is accurate and tasks, responsibilities and decision-making parameters are clear.

Tip; publish all the job descriptions so everyone can see them. That way, not only will people know what to do, they will know what not to do and what to expect from others.

Agree SMART objectives, so that it is clear what the employee is expected to ACHIEVE in their role. There are various versions of SMART, but our favourite is Stretching, Measurable, Aligned (to business goals), Realistic and Time-bounded. As well as aligning personal objectives to business goals, communicate the business goals, and progress against them, face to face to show people how they are contributing. If staff are engaged with the mission, you will have to spend less time managing individual performance. But remember, not everything can be measured. Some tasks are an art not a science and will need to be judged against some relevant criteria. Get a range of opinions from people such as customers, peers and the employees themselves. A  feedback scoring system will help with consistency.

Agree Performance Standards for the role that is “the how rather than the what”.  It’s no good someone achieving their objectives and leaving a trail of havoc behind them because of the way they have gone about it. Draw up a list of positive behaviours you want to see in the role, along with examples of the negatives you don’t want to see. Think of role models to prompt ideas for the positive ones.

Principle 2 ; Never ignore an error or performance blip –  The “Japanese Trend” of 1.

The “Japanese Trend of 1” was explained to our founder some years ago as the reason why Japanese goods are of high quality. We are not sure of its origin or authenticity, but it does make a lot of sense.

The theory is that one incidence of poor quality should be treated as a “trend” and  addressed. The temptation might be to let things go unless they form a pattern or become a major problem. That is exactly what you should not do. If you address each incidence of lateness, poor quality work or inappropriate behaviour immediately (with an appropriate degree of skill and severity!), you will normally prevent it from becoming a trend or major issue. This is not easy, and it will involve having potentially uncomfortable conversations with your staff; but hey, that’s what we are paid for.  However, the effectiveness of this approach is down to the quality of rapport you have with people. If you build trust via a balance of praise and “honest and constructive” feedback, you are unlikely to have a problem.

Principle 3 ;  Diagnose before you prescribe

Would a good doctor write you a prescription without asking questions and making an assessment of the problem? Hopefully not, and similarly you should not make snap judgements on what to do with a poor performer based on assumptions.

Tip; Ask yourself if you are basing your assessment on the right criteria. Because we are human, we tend to form opinions of people for all sorts of reasons. As managers, whether we “rate” someone is likely to depend on a blend of their ability to deliver results for us, our values and (our Achilles heel), personal compatibility. Based on this sub-conscious assessment, we are likely to put people into either our  “in group” or “out group” and treat them accordingly.

Do you agree with the following statements?

·        What we think about someone affects the way we behave towards them.

·        The behaviour affects the quality of the relationship.

·        The quality of the relationship determines the frequency and content of interaction.

·        The frequency and content of interaction between managers and staff affects performance.

Beware of any tendency to rate performance based on personal compatibility. Look at what the individual has achieved and not necessarily if they have gone about the task the same way you would have……. or even more importantly don’t judge them on whether they support the same team or like the same music ! Get this wrong and you can end up with good people in the “out group” feeling hard done by and vice versa.

Tip ; Identify the root cause of a problem before taking action. Here is  a simple formula to use in your detective work. Einstein had E = mc2 , we have  :-

P = M x A x O, where P = Performance, M = Motivation , A = Ability and O = Opportunity.

In order to perform well a person needs to want to, be able to and have the opportunity to. To identify which element is causing the engine to misfire you can use a couple of simple techniques to eliminate reasons from your enquiries.

Look at performance over time. If the person has delivered the goods before, you can usually rule out ability. You can use this evidence to counter the excuse of  “I haven’t been trained properly”.

Look at performance of similar tasks within the same environment across peers. If others are similarly trained, are working under the same conditions and delivering the goods, you can generally rule out opportunity. However, beware that the opportunity is not being hindered by you as the line manager. One of the biggest opportunity factors (and reasons for resignation) is the relationship with the boss, and if you are succumbing to the Achilles heel of “in group” “out group” behaviour, you may be part of the cause. Also check there are no personal problems that might be an opportunity factor.

When you have eliminated ability (knowledge and skills) and opportunity (external factors out of the persons control) then you are down to motivation and can be much more confident in managing the situation firmly. Ask the questions; What training do you need ? What is stopping you achieving? How can I help you?” When there are no further excuses, you can say……………”well it’s down to you now?” At this point, set some realistic improvement targets and be very honest about the consequences of not meeting them.

Principle 4 ;  PLAN and deliver timely, honest and constructive feedback

Having carried out the root cause analysis and diagnosis, more often than not some “corrective” feedback will be required.

Take time to plan what you are going to say. You may well have heard of the “feedback sandwich”. The filling is the “corrective feedback” with the bread the positive context that you should always try and place it in, regardless of how you feel personally. This does not mean you should gloss over a serious issue quickly and tell the person how wonderful they are, or be so predictable that the employee accused of theft is sitting waiting for the pat on the back at the end !

The size of filling will depend on the severity of the issue and how long it has been going on. You may have a huge amount of filling but in most cases (the theft example exempted) you will have at least a thin slice of bread, to give the individual a light at the end of the tunnel. This may be a statement that you are confident they can achieve the required improvement (particularly if you have ruled out ability on past performance), or merely a “come on let’s give it your best shot”.

You may have a situation where one error has occurred in an otherwise unblemished performance. You have a huge door-step of bread with a thin scraping of butter this time. “That was unlike you to get that wrong, what happened?” Unless the reason was disastrous, leave it at that, the individual is aware you have noticed, then go on to shine their shoes and reiterate what a great performer they are.

Tip ; Use the BEER model to PLAN and deliver constructive feedback. B = Describe the Behaviour you have observed. Keep it factual, no personal opinions. E = Provide Evidence , eg paper records (often seeing an error on paper is much more powerful than being told about it, and it saves you trying to work out what to say), the time and date where something was observed, customer feedback etc  E = Tell them the Effect it has had, on the business, the team and/or you as an individual. R = Tell them the Results you want to see in future; the changes in behaviour or performance required. Most importantly, tell them what the consequences are if those improvements or changes are not made. This is critical if you are getting anywhere near to formal disciplinary action.

Tip; The “red hot poker” conversation. Not to be taken literally, but this is a very powerful, but in our experience, under-used tool, to be used as part of the transition from informal to formal action. Once a person has failed to make the required improvements over a single improvement period (or more if you feel it appropriate), call a meeting to explain that they are now being given their last chance to deliver, before starting disciplinary action. As part of this conversation revisit the fact that you have together eliminated ability and opportunity. It is now down to motivation and the responsibility for deciding the next step actually lies with the individual. Make it clear that disciplinary action is the next step, which could lead to dismissal. This meeting if handled well, may be the last one you need to have……………… Confirm the discussion in a “letter of concern” for additional impact.

Principle 5 ; Don’t be afraid to go formal.

If you have gone through all the preventions and cures outlined above and still the performance is poor, pick up the telephone to HR and move forward into the formal capability or disciplinary procedure. If you have followed the principles above you probably won’t have to make that telephone call too often, people are likely to have raised their game or seen the writing on the wall ……….. But if you do, you will have gathered the evidence that will give you the confidence to move forward and bring the situation to a conclusion, whilst minimising your legal exposure.

If you would like to find out more about effective management of performance and our suite of leadership training, please get in touch via the contact page.