Management Challenge: Poor Performing Staff

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” ~ Peter Drucker

Teams come in all different shapes and sizes… and performance levels. It is very rare for a manager to have the opportunity to appoint an entire team of their choosing. Generally, you inherit a team from the previous manager – complete with all its foibles and failings.

Management Challenge

And sometimes, just every now and then, you realise quickly that you have one or two somebodies on your team who really aren’t up to it. Their time-keeping is poor, they walk slowly around the workplace as if they have all the time in the world, leave early, arrive late and take a long lunch. Their work is well-below what’s expected, and they always seem to have an excuse.

Welcome to your number one priority!

As a manager, you need to understand that your performance – and the overall performance of your team – can never exceed the performance of your weakest team member.

Furthermore, you need to remember that you cannot complain. No you must not complain. This is your job. This is what you signed up for.

Take responsibility for resolving the situation and you will gain a reputation for being a courageous and capable manager.

Blame your predecessor – or you team – and you’ll be seen as ineffectual and ultimately, your career will stagnate.

“Well that’s all very well for you to say!”

You’re right. I’m not going to leave you hanging.  Here’s my five point plan for resolving the situation once and for all…

Management Challenge #1: Set clear expectations and standards

I mean crystal clear.

You’ve heard of SMART goals? Well these need to be SMART goals on performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Seriously. The clearest expectations you have ever seen.

I don’t mean exhaustive – you cannot expect to write objectives that cover every single aspect of the role, unless it is incredible simple.

I mean clear. This is harder than it sounds.

Management Challenge

Ask yourself, if I was sitting here in six months’ time evaluating the performance of my team, what would this individual have delivered? And then craft that into a clear objective.

The test? And no offence to your mum, but you want to get your mum to read them (provided she isn’t the team member of course!) If she can tell what’s expected by reading them through with no context what-so-ever, you’re on the right track.

If these objectives are even a little bit hazy then your team member will either be able to argue/rationalise that they have achieved them OR that they didn’t know what was expected of them.

Don’t do this on your own. Get others enlisted in clarifying the tasks and responsibilities. BUT not others in the same team, and when you do this, don’t bad-mouth the employee – that never looks good. In fact it’s unprofessional.

Management Challenge #2: Provide regular feedback

I don’t mean twice a year.

I don’t mean quarterly.

I don’t mean monthly.

Heck, I don’t even mean weekly.

I mean at least daily. More if warranted. You should be providing feedback so regularly that you know a great deal about what your employee is doing. Offer feedback on what’s below standard, and what’s going really well.

Link the feedback to the performance objectives: “if you keep performing this way, you’re well on track to achieving that objective” or “consistent performance like that is below my expectations of someone in your role – how can I help you raise the standard of your work?”

For help with formal feedback techniques, I recommend the SBI model, from the Centre for Creative Leadership.

Equally, it can be as simple as saying ‘thank you’ regularly.

Show them you care about their success and that you are relying on them to contribute in a meaningful way.

I’m really not kidding about the frequency of this feedback. Daily. Diarise it if necessary.

Management Challenge #3: Figure out what makes them tick

Every human being on the planet has something that makes their socks roll up and down. Some of them can’t articulate it very well, but it’s there somewhere.

Part of your job is to help them discover it (or if they already know it, you need to discover it for yourself).

Take the time to get to know your team member. Invest your time in them.

A lot of managers are scared to do this, because they worry that if the time comes to fire the employee, they’ll care to much and won’t be able to make that tough decision.

Management Challenge

The truth is the opposite. In my experience, as you come to know the person better… not the widget doing the job, but the person… you can see why they aren’t happy. You’ll start to help them problem solve.

As you come to know them better you’ll be more inclined to seek solutions to their problem – not just your own. Remember, leadership is service.

I’ve had an employee in a highly creative and dynamic role explain to me that he was feeling burnt-out from trying to balance his work with his family commitments, and he really just wanted to do something routine and mundane for a while. I’ve had a manager tell me she didn’t want to manage staff because it distracted her from the technical speciality she enjoyed. None of these revelations came in the first conversation… But both of them offered solutions to what, until that point, had seemed like an intractable situation…

Management Challenge #4: Turn them around…

Now, thanks to your clear expectations, the regular feedback, and the more in-depth knowledge you have about the individual and what motivates him or her, you have all the things you need to turn the situation around.

This may mean helping them develop the skills they need to be effective in their job. Or it might mean helping them develop the skills they need to get an entirely different job.

It might mean changing some components of the role to play to their strengths better. Or it might mean just persisting with clear expectations, regular feedback, and the investment in getting to know them better. Sometimes all that’s needed is for them to feel respected and valued.

But a cautionary note is necessary at the end of this management challenge, because part of your job as a manager is to believe in your people and help them succeed, and part of your job is to ensure your team knows that you don’t condone persistent underperformance.

Apparent management inaction on poor performance – especially if it’s having a knock-on impact to the workload of other team members who are ‘picking up the slack’ – can be detrimental to the performance of your already high-performing team members.

However, if you are doing these things with all of your team members (because clear expectations, feedback and respect shouldn’t be a special treat reserved only for poor-performers!) they will trust you, and more importantly, they will trust that you are aware of the situation and acting to resolve it.

Management Challenge #5: …Or help them go, with dignity

And ultimately, at the end of the day, you may come to the disappointing realisation that it isn’t going to be resolved. That the individual is destined for success in some other arena.

Turn your focus to working with them (in consultation with your HR team – this is a multi-jurisdictional blog, so I’m not purporting to give employment law advice!) to find a dignified exit strategy.

Management Challenge

People fear being embarrassed as though it was a life or death situation. Someone who is afraid of being embarrassed in front of their colleagues is likely to react negatively no matter what you propose.

But luckily, you’ve invested time in getting to know what makes this person tick – you know what motivates them. And more importantly, they know you care.

Work with that. A solution will reveal itself, and everyone will walk away feeling like they’ve won the jackpot.

How’s that for a management challenge!


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