Wednesday, 26 December 2012

How To Manage Underperforming Employees

Wednesday 23 February, 2005
Managers need to understand how to handle poorly performing employees whose lack of motivation can impact on business profitability.
How To Manage Underperforming EmployeesWithout doubt the single biggest issue facing businesses is the problems they have with managing underperformance of their staff. Whether it’s in the private or public sector, in large organisations or small, the same issue emerges.

Our research and experience with clients confirms that at least one in five employees are working below par.

But although managers acknowledge the negative affect on the organisation, its bottom line, staff morale and impact on customers and clients, they still continue to avoid tackling the tough issues with their staff.

We describe this behaviour as ‘strategic avoidance’, a long-term habitual approach, where many managers choose to sweep staff issues under the carpet rather than confront them. It’s a case of anything to avoid confrontation.

Let’s be clear. When we talk about performance we are not talking about a performance appraisal system, but the way in which managers operate in setting and ensuring that required standards are met by their staff. Managing performance is a process not an event.

It’s widely acknowledged that most performance appraisal systems are ineffective in lifting performance and motivating staff. Hence it is the ongoing day-to-day skills and abilities of the managers to excite and motivate their staff and take action when necessary that will lift performance.

A combination of fear, lack of how-to skills, lack of confidence and insufficient courage to tackle staff underperformance perpetuates the avoidance style by managers, even though they are aware of the negative business, people and customer consequences.

It is remarkable how long some managers let staff performance problems go on before they actually do something constructive about addressing them. In my coaching with senior managers I often find that they can be quite vague and fuzzy about what they specifically want, what they mean by staff performance and what they are not happy with.

So one of the first things we recommend in addressing underperformance is for the manager to be clear, laser clear, on what their issues are and what they want. Many managers are not clear on what they want from their staff, so how can employees read their minds and know what to expect if they are not clearly told?

Expectations need to be spelt out in specific terms and be consistent with the values and requirements of the organisation. These values and standards need to be something that the organisation is passionate about and believes in. They are non-negotiable.

It’s a matter of making clear what is OK and not OK in behavioral terms, whether it is to do with productivity or quality relationships with other staff and customers. Spelling this out in specific details that people can readily understand, then supporting and supervising in an effective way that will help staff to achieve, are the foundation steps to managing performance.

If the person’s values are not consistent with those of the organisation, then the manager needs the courage and skills to get that person out of the organisation. It’s not that they are a bad person, it’s just that they would be more suited and happier working elsewhere.

If the problem isn’t about different values, the manager can use the following process to tackle underperformance. One-on-one, not group discussions, is the way to approach staff issues.

Here are the nine key steps:

  1. Only raise one issue, problem or behaviour at a time.
  2. State the issue and keep it to 15 words or less, be laser clear, don’t lecture or blame the person, be hard on the issue and soft on the person.
  3. Flick it back to the person as a question to get their engagement and buy-in through discussion.
  4. Determine their acceptance or rejection of the issue and stick to your guns.
  5. Help the person see how improved behaviour will improve his or her situation and career.
  6. Ask for ideas and commitment to solving the problem, don’t rush into premature solutions before exploring their feelings and emotions if these are getting in the way of solutions.
  7. Offer your encouragement, help and support.
  8. Agree on an action plan with dates for progress reviews and discussions.
  9. Make sure that you follow up.

Discuss what you want

A practical model that we find extremely valuable for managers to use in discussing underperformance and lifting performance is to discuss what you want more of, less of and the same of from the person.

This has proven to be a highly effective, non-personal and constructive way of discussing and solving performance issues. It’s a good format for an action plan, which can be discussed and agreed upon with the person and then followed up to see if they are sticking to the plan and changing their behaviour.

The next step is to acquire and practice the skills and techniques of confronting issues, confronting gently, being constructive and explaining clearly and flicking it back as a question to engage the person rather than lecturing them.

Too many times managers lecture, forgetting that the power is in the question, to engage people, to involve them and to open up the discussion of what are the causes and how to move forward.

The conversation in confronting an underperformance issue could go along like this:

“I have a concern that the reports are going out two days late. I need them out on time. I would like to discuss this with you. What’s your take on this, what’s causing the reports to be late?”

After this has been thoroughly discussed you can then move onto what ideas you both can come up with to get the reports out on time. If you think the person is taking things personally it can be very helpful to say, “My intent here is not to attack you personally, rather to discuss what’s happening and how I may be able to help. So I’d like to invite you to explore and discuss the situation so that we can move forward.”

It is important not to jump to solutions too quickly. Make sure that you engage the person by asking them open questions that will get them talking. Appreciating that feelings and emotions are the norm rather than the exception, it is wise to acknowledge and discuss these upfront if they are getting in the way of moving forward to solutions and actions.

Remember that such discussions require the manager to show empathy and understanding and to offer support and assistance to help the person improve and lift their performance. Be careful not to give the impression that you don’t care about them or that you think it is their problem and that they have to fix it.

Possibly the most important element in managing underperformance is for the manager to do some self-reflection. Asking yourself are you managing the person well, supervising them well, providing the required assistance, support and motivation is a better place to start than blaming the person. You can then ask yourself what you should start doing, stop doing and continue doing that will make you a better manager to enable your staff to lift their performance.

While there are no guarantees that the above approach will always be successful in solving staff performance issues, at least you know that you have done your best by tackling the issue in a constructive way. You will more than likely win the respect of those around you who will see that you take the role of being a manager seriously and that you have the courage to address rather than avoid issues.

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