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How to manage poor performance in the workplace

Performance management makes up a significant part of every manager's job, and this means managers must deal with poor performance. Managers often view this as one of the less desirable responsibilities that come with the job because too often our perception of managing poor performance is clouded by thoughts of tense, uncomfortable situations that may result in finger pointing, anger and denial.

If you believe that you have to put yourself and your employee through an awkward and stressful event to effectively confront poor performance, you should tear down that perception of the process and reimagine it. The simple fact is that managing poor employee performance should not be a huge event; it should be quick and relatively pain free, for both the manager and the employee, and something that's done incrementally at the first sign of any deviation in 'expected' behaviour. When poor performance goes unaddressed for long periods of time, as too often it does, it can become a major problem and manifest itself into a situation that can blow out of control.

Importantly, managers must understand that poor performance that is not addressed quickly is in reality seen by the employee as being condoned by the manager. This is because people respect what you 'inspect', not what you expect! Consequently your team, your people, pay attention to what you pay attention to. So if the behaviour you're getting is not what you expect, act on it now.

A simple guideline for managing poor performance with your staff can be summarised in three basic steps:

  1. identify what behaviour is causing the employee to underperform
  2. confront their poor performance
  3. redirect their behaviour to improve performance

Identify why the employee is underperforming

At the first sign of a deviation in behaviour, managers too often ask themselves, "what's wrong with that person?" But as soon as we do that, we have a tendency to personally indict the employee and possibly even attack them verbally. So regardless of personal likes or dislikes, managers must work on being objective, focus on the behaviour (not the personality) and ask, "why are they not performing as we expect them to do?"

In particular a manager must determine if there is some form of task interference or consequence imbalance occurring.

Task interference refers to anything that prevents the employee from performing their job to an expected standard. This can be something as basic as a new procedure or system that has caused the employee to be less productive, or it can be something that the employee doesn't have, like proper resources, tools, skills or training (this includes managerial support).

Employees experience consequence imbalance when there's a mismatch between their actions and the consequences of those actions, such as a manager failing to follow up when they said they would. Oftentimes managers may see that the team is performing well, but if they haven't made time to personally observe who are and aren't the real drivers of team performance, they praise everyone. To the poor performers, this reinforces their ineffective behaviour and for the top performers it can cause them to question why they should work harder and produce more, only to have their deserved recognition given to others.

So a consequence imbalance occurs when negative behaviour is positively rewarded (eg. no action is taken to address it) or when positive behaviour produces a negative outcome (eg. no recognition or feedback).

Confront poor performance

There are six rules you should observe when confronting a poor performing employee:

  1. Never confront in anger: do not let this become an emotional situation. Do whatever you need to do to get your emotions in check before confronting; maybe walk around the block, count to ten or have a coffee.

  2. Do it immediately: take however long you need to get your emotions together, but as soon as you've done that, confront the poor performing employee without delay.

    Failure to confront immediately is what causes so much angst around the idea of confronting poor performance. When you let inappropriate actions continue unaddressed for too long before confronting them, the situation can get out of control. When managers consistently confront immediately, at the first sign of a deviation in behaviour, the process of managing poor performance becomes painless – and potentially even gratifying!

  3. Do it in private: this doesn't automatically mean going into your office and shutting the door, just don't do it within earshot of other staff. You don't need to turn it into a big event. In fact, confronting poor performance can be done quite casually, for example, at the water cooler or while getting a coffee or even walking down the corridor. Many times, taking the employee into your office and closing the door can create a tense atmosphere – the same tension that has given such a stigma to the process of managing poor performance – before saying a word.

  4. Be specific: use evidence and factual information to state your case and focus on behaviour. When you bring hearsay or impressions into the conversation, you can find yourself squabbling over details, no matter how big or small.

  5. Use data: just as you should be specific with factual information, support your assertions with data whenever possible. In the process of confronting, tell them what they have done, how you feel about their actions (concerned, disappointed, angry) and why you feel that way. It's not unusual to feel anger, you can be human! If you're emotionally invested in your business you'll feel angry, and you have a right to feel just don't have the right to act out that anger!

  6. Be clear: do not confuse people by watering down the fact that this is a reprimand. Because they feel uncomfortable, managers will often end a confrontation with something like, "....but overall, you've really been doing a great job." The problem is people choose to hear what they want to hear, so employees latch onto such comments and leave the meeting thinking they just got praised. So don't confront and praise in the same interaction.

Redirect behaviour to improve performance

After confronting a poor performing employee with 'what, how and why', at the same time also begin the process of redirecting their behaviour towards what you expect of them.

First, get their opinion of your assessment of the behaviour that's at issue. Ask them: "how do you feel about this situation?" What perspective do they have of their performance/behaviour? Then ask them to propose a solution; what would they suggest be done to address the problem? Don't simply mandate a solution for them, get them to take ownership of it. This is to ensure that not only have they bought into the fact that they've been performing poorly, but also because they so often will know themselves, better than anyone else, what an appropriate solution will be....perhaps better than what you might have in mind!

Once you've agreed on the solution and the interaction is over, observe the employee's behaviour over a period of time. In other words, make sure you follow up. If the solution doesn't adequately address the situation, that's okay, because you've addressed it early on. In fact, it can become a learning process for the employee as they figure out how to get their behaviour where it needs to be. As long as they're taking incremental steps in the right direction, learning each time, you'll be in good shape.

As you observe the employee making changes and improvements to their behaviour, positively reinforce their actions by telling them what you've seen them do differently, how that makes you feel (and this time your feelings are positive) and why you feel that way. The clarity of your communication will ensure they understand the impact of their improved performance to themselves, the team and the organisation.

Managing poor performance is not a big deal

Setting aside all of these techniques for managing poor performance, if there's one thing you should remember about how to manage poor performing employees, it's that it should not be the big deal that we so often make of it. If you address inappropriate behaviour when it first appears, you will start viewing it not as a burden but as an opportunity to coach, develop and grow.

Practical Sales Management and Leadership is a modular, cloud-based, training system designed to help sales leadership teams grow their ability to performance manage the sales force.  Preview a module from the training system here