Productivity & Effectiveness

Dealing with low performance as a manager

By 12/05/2022 July 27th, 2022 No Comments

It’s quite common in many organisations to “move problem people around” rather than deal with low performance.

I remember being in a talk where a high-flying tech exec, from a very well known company, said he’d moved problem people around with great effect. A few people clapped. Most were disappointed. It does nobody any good to do this. And there are likely a few reasons it happens. One, which this exec was explaining, was because people just didn’t “understand” the new strategy, nor ways of working.

Let’s jump in.

Communication is something other people do – so it’s your fault if they “don’t get it”

When people don’t “get a message” the problem isn’t them, it’s the person delivering it. Communication is something the listener does – and if they don’t understand something…..it’s the fault of the sender, not the receiver. We cover this in great depth in the Communication Super Power course.

If leaders are “communicating” a new way of working, or strategy, and it’s not resonating, it’s not the other people that are a problem. In this situations it’s about communication and I encourage leaders to draw a virtual circle around themselves, and look for problems there first.

You’re not solving the problem

Moving people around is merely moving the problem.

Where do all these people go? Do they all end up in the same team? Is there some really low performing team somewhere that people get moved to?

The reality is, moving people around is based on the assumption that you cannot deal with low performance and/or remove someone from the business. This myth is often perpetuated by HR who fear a court case, or some breaking of the law. You absolutely can remove people from a business due to poor or low performance. It just needs to be done carefully and considerately.

Think about the consequences…..you are going to seriously unsettle someone else’s life, so have care, consideration and do it right.

Imagine a manager rocking up to HR and saying “I want to remove X”. HR will naturally ask what you’ve been doing to address the problem.

Most managers I encounter have done very little work to address the issue – they’ve moved people around, avoided the hard conversation or left performance to the dreaded annual review.

Here’s how to deal with low performance (simplified):

  1. Give regular feedback to the person about their behaviours. Not about them, or your opinion, but about the very behaviours that make you think they are performing below the bar.
  2. Talking of which – have you expressed, clearly, what the high bar is and what is expected from them? I often find that simply explaining how they are dropping below what’s expected is enough to move them into action.
    1. Trust me, most people who appear to be low performers have simply never been told what’s expected. When I speak to people about their performance 99% of people step up and surpass the bar. Some, of course, don’t. But it’s unfair to say someone is a low performer without ever having explained what the high bar is, and how people can get to it.
  3. Take and keep copious notes of performance conversations, feedback and coaching plans. Keep these records should you need to. They don’t need to be pretty, formal or digital – just notes. Keep them. You will need them for your conversation with HR – you will need them if things don’t go smoothly upon any kind of exit.
  4. Build a coaching plan that consists of resources, material, opportunities and learning plans that will help them get to the high bar.
  5. Don’t overly focus all of your time on lower performers. Explain the bar to low performers, explain their performance, give feedback, build a coaching plan, keep giving feedback, give them a fair shot at reaching it but spend the majority of your time with high performers. Why? Because they’re the people you really want to retain, right?

If, given an explanation of the high standard, details of how they are falling below it, and a coaching plan, they still don’t meet the high bar, then ensure you’re giving them plenty of feedback. Keep track of all performance conversations, all feedback and all coaching plans. Keep working with them. Keep trying. And keep coaching. Open a conversation with HR and explain how you’ve given feedback, provided coaching and are working with a plan.

Work with HR to help you craft the right approach for the company you work with. There are very few HR professionals I’ve met who wouldn’t support a manager with a low performance challenge, if the managers is doing all of these things. Most managers don’t, which is rightly why HR have a bad reputation of not supporting an exit.

Any exit is a failure on everyone in the business, but it’s especially hard to remove someone if a manager hasn’t done the above. It’s a tough decision to make with epic consequences for the person involved. Don’t enter to it lightly and care about them. But sometimes, it gets to the point where something needs to happen. And HR will support any manager who’s doing and done the above.

The way to think about this;

If you remove this person from the business imagine the carnage you’ll bring to their lives.

They have bills, families and a life. It’s not something to take lightly or to avoid talking about performance and doing what is right for the business. Firing is failure of everybody involved. Go carefully and empathetically.

Let removing someone from the business be the last resort. But don’t avoid this process and simply move people around – it helps no-one. The business deserves better than this. The employee deserves more.

Honestly, 99.9% of the time most people have simply never been told that they are not meeting the bar (or they don’t even know what the bar is). Start there and move forward.

Solving problems grows businesses

Solving problems in their entirety is the number 1 way to unblock systemic problems and move the business forward.

Not passing the burden to others.

These two concepts apply to processes, rules, work, the system and of course, people.

Solve the problem in its entirety by helping to address the performance issue – and don’t pass the burden to other managers or HR.

Good managers own their own problems and solve them in partnership with others (like HR and other managers). They don’t pass the burden. And they certainly don’t move under performing people around to avoid dealing with low performance.

Work on the system (and your high performers too)

But remember this.

You should spend the majority of your time with your high performers. They are the ones you don’t want to lose.

Work on the system that people work in to help everyone flourish. Think rules, process, communication, flow of work and then spend the remaining time split between high and low performers, with an over index on your high performers.

In my experience most “under performers” have never been to told what it takes to reach the bar. But remember, the business needs to be effective to stay alive. And your job is to help the business be effective by recruiting and working with talented high-performing people. And performance is one aspect of this.

Performance is an ongoing process and it requires active participation of managers and leaders, not moving people around because it’s to hard to deal with low performance. It is hard to deal with low performance, but it’s not complicated. And it’s the job of leaders and managers, not HR.

Management is hard, but that’s why we signed up to do it, right?

Stay safe.
Rob