Managing Poor Performance/Behaviour in the Workplace

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There is little that makes a leader’s blood pressure point north faster than having to address a performance or behaviour problem with an employee.  As leaders we procrastinate, make excuses, get too busy at other things, and usually naively assume that performance or behaviour will improve in time.  “After all, finding and training another employee is always a challenge – and perhaps the new recruit will be worse than what I have now”….  or so we tell ourselves.  So we bite our tongue, turn away, mumble to ourselves – and put up with it.  Meanwhile, we pay a credibility price with other team members who are in the audience and have to live with the poor performance.  They can really only come to one of three conclusions about the tolerant slow-moving leader:  blind and cannot see; dis-engaged and does not care; or immobilized by fear and lack of skill.   None of these conclusions motivate your audience to keep on working at an acceptable level.

Leadership comes with a price – and a significant part of that price is the responsibility to give feedback, coach and address the performance of any team member that does not measure up to expectations.  It is all part of the leader’s package…..so let’s dive in and suggest some ways to make this easier on everyone.

  1. Ensure that you have a current position description that clearly outlines the duties of the position and the performance/behavioural expectations of the incumbent. There may be such a document from the hiring process – but it may not be current or in sufficient detail on an ongoing basis.  Position descriptions should be reviewed and updated as required annually, or at least bi-annually.  The reality is that most employees today are either working without any position description  – or with one that is significantly out of date.
  2. Prepare a list of observable facts that form the basis of your assessment that performance/behaviour is not up to standard.  There is no room in this conversation for personal opinions, assumptions or unsubstantiated perceptions.  Any or all of these will lead to heated discussions about what really was happening – and it should come as no surprise that perceptions and opinions are almost always different from the other person’s point of view.  Gather the facts, details, dates, complaints – whatever it is that you are basing your opinion on – and force yourself to stick to the facts.
  3. Using your facts, clearly establish the gap that you perceive between the performance or behaviour experienced and the level expected. This is the critical part of the discussion with the employee, because without a clear understanding of the gap, and the need to address it, there will be no acceptance of responsibility for changing the performance/behaviour in question.  Facts are the only tool that will enable you to establish the gap.
  4. Having established, or made your case that a gap exists, explore possible reasons for the gap in the employee’s performance. It is dangerous and somewhat foolish to automatically assume that it is personal motivation that is totally under the employee’s control to fix.  All performance or behavioral gaps can be linked to one of four reasons:  skills or capability, willingness or motivation, capacity or available time, and physical work factors like tools or workplace environment.   There may be personal problems at home or with health that are affecting performance /behaviour which suggests that Employee Assistance (EAP) counselling may be an appropriate intervention.  If it is a skills issue, then re-training or mentoring/coaching will be an important option.  If time or capacity is an issue, then perhaps the job is too large for anyone to do well – and some restructuring of the work tasks may be appropriate.  If there are tool or workplace environment issues, then these will need consideration to be appropriately addressed.  By taking the time to explore the reasons for the gap, as a leader you are being non-judgemental with the person, acknowledging that while the performance or behaviour remains a problem, you are willing try to be part of the solution to get it rectified.  So for at least awhile, the performance / behavioural gap is a problem that you jointly agree to try to solve.  Problem-solving discussions are much less adversarial than ‘get-your-act-together’ messages.
  5. Build a plan to a better place. Whatever the outcome of the exploration of cause, you need to move into an action phase if the gap is going to be addressed.  Clear understandings of what will be done, by whom and by when, are critical parts of any performance or behavior improvement plan.  There may be some actions required of you as the leader.  If so, step up and own them. There may be some required of the employee – if so, secure commitment to next steps and a date for your next meeting to review progress and results.
  6. Follow-up is as important as the original call to action. The employee needs to be acknowledged if the performance/behaviour improves. If there is no progress, then reviewing agreed actions or earlier concluded reasons for the gap must happen.  In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that his or her performance or behaviours meet the standards documented in the position description.  Lack of ability to meet and maintain this standard can and should lead to more serious outcomes, including the potential exit from the position, and possibly the organization.