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We Have A Problem Don't We: How to Discuss Poor Performance

As the knot in your stomach tightens and your palms get sweaty, you start to think “how am I going to raise this? What will I say? What if they spit the dummy? I hope they don’t go to the Union!”

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Having a poor performance discussion with a team member is not easy for most of us.  I know, I've been there more than once as both the manager and the HR support person.  You try to hide your nerves, the shaky hands and the trembling in your voice.  You stumble over your words, hoping you have been clear, factual and the poor performer accepts your authority.

For many managers it's the discussion you have to have at some point.  Sure you can avoid it, deny the problem, have someone else address it or hope it all magically goes away.

But here's the reality – It won't fix itself and other team members expect you as the manager to address the issue and if you don't they will see you as ineffective.  Left unattended, your boss will hold you accountable and the stress you are under will only increase.

Be conscious of the following guiding principles and you will be better placed to successfully address poor performance.

Now, keep in mind the context here is not a "final warning" or termination discussion, though some of the same principles apply.  These recommendations are for general performance which is not meeting expectations or unacceptable performance which warrants a first informal or formal discussion.


Catch it early

It's always easier to address problems as soon as you notice them occurring.  The longer you ignore a poor performance issue the more you are saying the performance or behavior is acceptable.  In addition, the details of problems which have occurred in the distant past are less clear and harder to discuss.


Gather your facts

Do not tackle poor performance with limited information and never make accusations based on hearsay.  Know the facts – what was expected, what was done or not done, the support provided, who said what, exact quality delivered etc.  This also gives you something factual and tangible to discuss allowing you to focus on the problem and not the person.


Trusting and open discussions

Trust and openness is more about the relationship you have with your team.  When positive relationships exist, people will be more honest and accepting of the issues which need to be addressed.  Whilst this is critical for performance discussions, it's a characteristic of the team climate which must be developed over time.


Tackle the problem not the person

Attacking the other person is unproductive, disrespectful and could be seen as "bullying".  Instead of saying something like  . . . "you've missed another deadline because you're so lazy and have a poor attitude", try something like . . . "you've missed another deadline which is impacting our customer service.  Tell me why this is happening".  In the latter example you are taking a problem solving approach.


Did you contribute to the problem?

Depending on the reason for poor performance, don't shirk your own responsibilities.  It just may be that you needed to communicate more effectively, provide required resources or train the team member.  Be sure to acknowledge this and be accountable.


Gain ownership and commitment

As you explore the problem and discuss how things can be better, take a coaching role and ask the team member "what can they do differently" or "what would they need to do to make this or that happen".  These questions force the team member to come up with ideas or actions to take and in turn develop ownership and commitment.


Clarify next steps

As the discussion progresses, you will be coming up with a number of actions to be taken (but not an overwhelming list!).  Before you finish the discussion be sure to summarise the next steps – i.e. who will take what action and by when.  Set a review date and be sure to check-in periodically with the team member.


Follow a defensible process

Problems in managing performance usually occur when a robust process has not been followed.  Often, unfortunately, HR folk are seen as blockers in the process when a frustrated manager comes to them wanting to sack a team member.  Remember, HR is trying to protect the manager, the organisation and be sure that the team member has been treated fairly.  My best advice here is to find out what your organisation's process is for managing poor performance, so talk with HR or an external industrial relations advisor.  The important thing is that you keep notes of discussions, actions and review dates.  Actions must be reasonable, as does the time expected to complete the actions.  Be sure that the team member acknowledges these (signs them).  Allow witnesses to be present in meetings if requested (you can also have someone there to support you).

Managing poor performance is uncomfortable but left unchecked it becomes a nightmare.

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