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One of the most common pain points managers talk to me about is dealing with poor performance. This can show up as disrespectful behaviour (like ignoring or arguing with reasonable directions), not pulling their weight as a team member or just not doing the job they were employed to do.

I was inspired to write this post after having a conversation with a manager who said that her challenges include getting staff to put their phones away during meetings, completing basic reporting and deliberately ignoring company policies. The last time she managed an underperforming employee they lodged complaints against her and several members of the team. Needless to say she’s thinking long and hard about how to address poor performance these days.

There’s no doubt that managing poor performance can take a lot of time and energy. Many managers don’t know where to start, especially if the issues have been going on for a long time. Some managers are also fearful that dealing with poor performance will set off claims of bullying or send workers off on stress leave, like the manager I just mentioned.

Ignoring poor performance in teams though means that your high performers will feel resentful and reduce their efforts to meet the lowest performer’s level. After all, if someone else is allowed to get away with bad behaviour why should they bust their butt? Research shows that as humans we all have an inbuilt sense of fairness and this really kicks in when it comes to having colleagues who are ‘passengers’ instead of contributors.

Having poor performers on your team is a common issue and one that every manager is likely to face at some point. I’ve managed big and small teams over the past 20 years, I’ve been an HR Manager and now I coach managers to get the best out of their people by leveraging strengths. Here are my top tips for dealing with poor performance. Keep in mind that these are a starting point to get you out of ‘hair tearing’ phase and into action so you can get poor performers back on track.

1. Address poor performance early – don’t ignore bad behaviour or lack of performance. Believe me when I say this; ignoring it will NOT make it go away. When you notice poor performance get really clear on what the issue is so you can describe it to the team member. Also check that you aren’t reacting to them personally. We’re human beings so we don’t like all of our team members equally. A good question to ask yourself is ‘would this be an issue if another team member behaved this way?’.

2. Know and leverage strengths – poor performance can often be the result of overused or underused strengths. Strengths are our natural or default way of being in the world. We default to our strengths especially in times of stress and when we overuse our strengths they can show up as weaknesses.

Here’s an example; if someone is particularly talented in the strength of communication when they overuse it they can send long rambling emails, be chatty, and distract their colleagues by pulling them into long conversations. I was one of those kids whose school report read ‘needs to focus on her own work and stop chatting to others’. If you’re a fellow chatter I get it. Communication is one of my strengths. I have to manage it though, so it doesn’t become a weakness.

When you’re dealing with a poor performer try putting on your strengths finding glasses. Think about the person’s strengths and see if you can spot the one that’s being overused. This will help you frame the conversation with the person in terms of which strength they might need to ‘dial down’ (the one that’s being overused) and which other strengths might be more helpful to their performance.

If the language of strengths is new to you, I’d suggest taking a strengths quiz so you can find out about your own strengths, and getting your team members to do the same. Gallup research has shown that teams who use their strengths have higher levels of engagement, higher levels of performance and lower staff turnover. (Read more about using CliftonStrengths for teams, and talk to me about getting more from your team with strengths).

3. Start with a clear and curious conversation – name the specific issue or behaviour that you are concerned about. Don’t fluff around or try to protect the person from the truth. As Brene Brown says ‘clear is kind’ and this starts right at the beginning of the conversation. Once you’ve both sat down (somewhere you can both speak freely and openly like a private office) start the conversation with ‘thanks for making time to talk with me. I need to speak with you because you’ve come into the office after our 9:00am start time three times this week. I’d like to understand what might be happening from your point of view’. Clear, direct and curious. This opens the conversation without accusations, just a statement of the facts.

Listen to the person’s point of view. Once you understand the situation better you can move onto what needs to happen for the person to meet expectations. You can start by asking them what they think is expected of them so you can make sure they clearly understand what they need to do in future. This is also a good time to point out any strengths you’ve noticed that they might be overusing.

If the team member isn’t clear about expectations and you need to be more direct, tell the person what you DO expect rather what you DON’T expect in terms of performance. Councils have found that when they switched signs that said ‘don’t walk on the grass’ for signs that said ‘stay on the path’ people were more likely stay off newly planted grass. This is called using an active request rather than a passive request, and research has shown that active requests are far more likely to get results because there’s less room for interpretation.

For example if you ask someone ‘not to be late’ there’s room for interpretation. What does ‘late’ mean? Does it mean showing up one minute after 9:00am or 5 minutes after 9:00am? Or does it mean not being ready to work and at my desk by 9:00am? An active request would be ‘I need you to be at your desk, computer switched on and ready to take calls by 9:00am. You can read more about active vs passive requests in ‘Dealing with the Tough Stuff’).

4. Empower the person to take ownership – ask them what they will do to address the issue. Some managers I speak with get the conversation started but then feel so uncomfortable about addressing poor performance, they want to rescue the team member. They might say ‘we can work on this together’ or ‘how about we get you some training’. This sends the message that the manager and the team member are both responsible.

Ultimately the team member is the only person who can step up. You can give them information, training or link them to support like coaching or counselling (if a personal issue is getting in the way of them doing their job). The bottom line though is that you need the staff member to take ownership and make the changes that are needed to lift their performance. You’ve had the clear and curious conversation (see step 2) and agreed what needs to change, now you need them to take action. The simple question is ‘what will you do to achieve (the agreed outcome)? A follow up question is ‘do you need any support from me or anyone else to do that?’

5. Document and follow up – keep written records of conversations from the very start. This doesn’t need to be highly formal; it can just start with an email confirming what you spoke to the person about and what you both agreed would happen next. Ask the person to acknowledge they’ve received the email and invite them to ask any questions if anything is unclear to them. Also let them know that you’ll follow up with them within a specific timeframe. I’d suggest a follow up 2-4 weeks later. This gives them time to action what they said they would do and get some results on the board. If it’s left any longer than 4 weeks the conversation will be a distant memory and it sends the message that the issue wasn’t all that important to start with.

By documenting conversations that include what was discussed, what was agreed and the timeframes you’ve got a clear record to go back to. If the person doesn’t follow through on what you’ve agreed and you find you do have to start a formal performance improvement process, you’ve already laid the groundwork for that to happen.

Managing poor performance can feel uncomfortable, inconvenient and at worst downright scary. If you get in early and consistently address poor performance, you’ll be well on the way to setting a culture where great performance is celebrated and ‘passengers’ aren’t tolerated. The great news is that the more conversations you have to deal with poor performance, the easier they will get and the more confident you’ll be.

If you’ve got poor performers, team conflict or staff engagement issues you need help tackling or you’d like to boost your leadership skills and confidence with some coaching, get in touch with me today!