Stop the Rot – Managing Poor Performance ~ Part 2

Managing Poor Performance, Think OakIn part 1 of this two-part post I covered the potential impacts of poor performance, the causes and your responsibilities as a manager. In part 2, I’ll be guiding you through a seven-step process to help you deal with a poor performer.

Tackling Poor Performance

Many businesses do have policies and procedures around performance management and I’m not suggesting you don’t follow them. However, I’ve found a more informal, coaching approach to improve performance works in the vast majority of cases. Only once this approach is exhausted would I move down a more formal approach and this is normally the exception rather than the rule.

1. Prepare

Before you engage in a meeting with your poor performer, ensure that you have a detailed understanding and examples of poor performance as well as the impact that this under performance has had on the team, your customers, the business, yourself and the individual. Also, think about examples of good performance and behaviour that the person has shown in the past.

By spending some time preparing for the meeting,  you will have had a chance to gather your thoughts, examine the evidence, think about the evolution of the relationship and mentally frame the meeting in broad and flexible terms.

2. Set up a meeting with context

You should set up a meeting with at least a couple of days notice. You should be very clear in explaining exactly why you are arranging the meeting, that you will be discussing their recent performance and that you would like to have a discussion around how you can work on an improvement plan going forward.

To help your employee prepare for the meeting, you could suggest s/he gives some thought to a few questions, for example:

• How successfully do the two of us work together?

• How good are our communications and overall relationship?

• Which aspects of your job do you find easiest?

• Which are you most comfortable with?

• And which do you find most difficult?

• To what extent do I help you perform?

• Are there things I do that make life more difficult for you?

• Overall what can we do to improve your performance, my performance, our joint performance and our relationship?

The Performance Meeting

3. Agreement with your employee on the symptoms of the problem

It’s really important that you and your employee agree that there is a performance problem and agree the specific examples of when performance has been poor, the impacts that this has had and the importance of getting back on track. Try not to get into the why’s and wherefores at this stage. We’ll come to that. Just get agreement that behaviours or deliverables were not at the desired standard required for your team and business.

4. Understanding the causes of underperformance

Together, you and your colleague need to arrive at a common understanding of what might be causing the weak performance. This step assumes the person will be willing to participate in a genuine discussion of his/her strengths and weaknesses. Very few people will see themselves as perfect and in no need of any improvement. However, some people do overestimate the quality of their work performance and are unaware of their weaknesses. A major reason for this is likely to be that their previous managers have been reluctant to confront the employee’s shortcomings. In the absence of past negative feedback an employee could be genuinely shocked by your feedback and tempted to reject it as biased and personal.

It might be useful at this stage to review the answers to the preparation questions you gave them in step 2 to tease out some possible explanations. Ensure that you also point areas of performance or behaviours that are good, or have been in the past and spend some time on these also.

This stage of the process can be emotive. Keep calm and spend time working through the detail if necessary. Don’t forget that you already have agreement that there was poor performance. If you can’t agree on the why at this stage, you may need to move on to offering some suggestions on a way forward.

5. Creating and agreeing an Improvement Plan

Find out what motivates the individual: People are motivated by very different things.  Find out what’s important to the individual and shape and ‘sell’ the development plan accordingly.

Fit development action plans to learning style: Different people learn in different ways and this should be considered when planning development.  Understand which is the best learning strategy for that individual and shape the plan accordingly.

Focus on development priorities: Don’t overload people with too many things to focus on.

Use a range of development techniques: Development doesn’t solely result from attending training courses.  The success of development efforts will depend upon picking the right blend of development activity for the individual.  Good development plans draw on a combination of learning, practice and reinforcement.

Ensure that the plan has SMART Goals and by SMART, I mean:

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, timely, tangible, trackable

Ensure that the individual owns their plan: Getting them to come up with ideas and to actually write the development plan themselves will ensure that they buy-in to the plan and feel that it is their own.

Make sure the plan is documented – either fully during the meeting or an agreed skeleton is produced during the meeting and an agreement that plan will be delivered back the following day.

6. Create Confidence and Commitment

A good manager wants their people to succeed. This stage is all about building confidence in the person and inspiring them to improve, to develop themselves and to take the initiative.  People with high levels of self-belief set themselves more demanding goals, show greater effort and persistence in trying to achieve, and cope better with stress and difficulties.

Put a lot of energy into encouraging the individual to develop themselves and improve. Spend some time making the individual believe they can turn their performance around. Offer structured support as part of the improvement plan, but tell them it’s their responsibility to deliver against it.

7. Follow up

You must follow up on the agreements made. You and individual will have agreed to make certain changes, perform certain actions and/or reach certain performance targets by a given date. The onus is on both of you to ensure maximum high quality communication occurs during the period of the agreement. Don’t wait until the end of the process to discuss progress. Ideally the agreed objectives will be specific enough and the communication process during the contract period effective enough that both parties will agree on the assessment of the outcomes.

By implementing timely follow-ups and encouragement throughout the process, you should start to see demonstrable improvement.

Should performance not improve during the process then you must then set the expectation of the consequences which would be a more formal process. Although this process was not part of your company’s formal process, the documentation produced and meeting notes would be able to used as evidence as part of most formal procedures.

You won’t always succeed in turning around poor performance, but by following these steps you will have given your poor performer every opportunity to turn performance around.

I hope you found this post useful. As always, I’ love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

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Fail to Learn, Learn to Fail

Failure

In this post I’d like to cover some common failures of leaders and managers. We all make mistakes, and that’s actually a good thing, as long as you learn from them…and learn quickly. I’m going to draw from my experiences and those of people I’ve met along the way and hopefully save you some time and some pain.

1)    Waiting too long to address under-performance

I’ve seen this so many times in my career and have been guilty of it myself in the past. Many of us like to think the best of people and think that with encouragement, coaching and focussed objectives everyone can make the grade or better. Not so, certainly not all the time. There comes a point when you have to take decisive action.

These situations almost always get worse if left alone. They never get better on their own. Understanding the real issues and taking action quickly leads to faster improvement and reduces the risk of unrecoverable failure for your team members and yourself.

You need to ask yourself the following questions?

a)     Does your team member know what is expected of them? Have they got SMART Objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound)?

b)    Does your team member have the capability and skills to do what you need of them? Do you and they know what needs to be changed? Have you got time to get there?

c)     Are they passionate about what they do? Maybe they’re ‘a square peg in a round hole’ i.e. they’re in the wrong role for their skills.

d)    Have you ensured that they are receiving feedback? Don’t trust that just because you’ve discussed it with their manager, it’s happened…Follow up. Don’t trust that just because the words have come out of your mouth, they’ve got it. Get them to play back what they’ve heard and let them tell you what they’re doing about it.

e)     Is their performance impacting other members of the team negatively? Are you hearing this from more than one or two people?

Once you’ve got the answers to these questions, make a decision to act and then act. Stick to a plan. Set objectives, measure performance, give feedback, coach, give more feedback and if the person’s performance or behaviour doesn’t change, make a decision, and yes follow process, but move the person; either to a different role, or out of your business. It will be hard, but it is the right thing to do – Right for you, for the team, and in my experience, right for the individual.

2)    Not linking Strategy to Objectives or Pay

If you pay your sales team only on winning new business and you’re not setting objectives to any of your teams on retention or great customer service….you will fail.

If you incentivise your people on revenue, they won’t focus on profitability and you will fail.

If you want the best customer service in your industry and you pay people on lowest call times…you will fail.

If you want your executive team, or your management team to change the culture of the business for the long term, make sure that they are compensated on it, or you will fail.

You get the picture, but many don’t. If you want to shift the momentum of a department or a function or a full business, you need to align how people are compensated behind that vision.

3)    It’s ‘their’ fault

Let’s get something straight. If you take ownership for delivering something, big or small, it’s no-one else’s fault but your own. True ownership means, tenacity – not taking ‘no’ as an answer, not taking ‘it can’t be done’ as an answer. You keep going, keep pushing, you fight for resource, you fight for priority, you fight for your goals. You make yourself unpopular. Yes…but. No buts. If you agree to take ownership of something, you deliver it or you face the consequences. Stand by your goals!

4)    I thought they knew what they had to deliver

This is a big one. Communicating top priorities creates the basis of focus for an organisation, team or individual. However, without clear definitions of success, management and employees can be aiming for very different levels of performance. This creates significant risk in execution to committed operating plans and strategic projects.

Leaders need to be very precise in defining how they are going to measure success. What indicators are going to be used? What weight will be put on different measures? And what are the specific target levels for each of those measures that are expected?

Highly visionary leaders struggle with this more than most. They tend to be heavy on pitching big ideas, but very light on communicating priority and specific expectations.

a)     What’s the big idea?

Visionaries get this. They have the idea. They have the passion. They feel they have communicated it. But your team may not.

b)    What are the under-pinning principles?

What guiding principles underpin the big idea? No more than 5 – In priority order if possible. These principles will help your people define the boundaries of the big idea. Make sure that your people, especially your influencers understand the big idea AND the principles.

c)     Get your people to shape the plan

Ok, so your key players understand the big idea, they’ve thrashed out principles and priorities with your help. Let them build the plan. You sign it off. But let them ‘own’ the plan…and the targets.

d)    Review and feedback

Keep on top of the plan, regularly. Give feedback, but don’t take over. If you’ve got the wrong people on the team, change them. If the numbers aren’t coming, evaluate what you’re doing and either change your course or focus extra energy on results.

5)    Accepting the status quo

I’ve spent my whole career being frustrated by the status quo. No system is perfect. If it was, the animal kingdom would not have evolved. Competition would not exist. Siblings would not try to out-do each other. There would be no Olympic Games or Premier League. Business is no different.

I’m amazed at the lack of attention to detail in business. We get feedback every day from our customers – directly or indirectly. Do ‘we’ listen to the news, surveys, research, phone calls, letters of complaint….?

Only the best businesses truly listen to feedback and act upon it. And by business I mean, every part, every person in the business listens and more importantly ACT on feedback.

Companies that stick with the status quo, fail.

6)    Stop communicating – Engage, Enrol, Involve

People are not stupid. They have lives, they have mortgages, they have complicated relationships, they have children, they have debts, they have secrets, they have dreams. Don’t give them a mouse mat or a piece of paper and expect them to ‘vote’ for your strategy. Talk to them, listen to them, find out what they care about, let them help you with your strategy. Listen to their ideas. Morph your strategy to the best ideas. Bring the most enthusiastic into your inner circle, no matter what their grade.

Forget emails, slides, videos, intranets and 3 minutes at a team briefing in isolation. If you only use these methods without truly engaging with your people and getting their buy-in and belief, you will fail.

7)    I won’t tell them, it’s in their best interests.

Rightly or wrongly, businesses often hide the truth from their people and often for the ‘right’ reasons. The days of mass union action have gone. Some will disagree.

Everyone that has an element of commercial awareness, knows that sometimes, tough decisions have to be made. One day that could impact you.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather know. I would then have time to make plans.

My advice, some would say naively, tell people the truth. Give them enough time to make plans or change direction.

I hope this post provoked some thought and hopefully some ideas to help you reflect on past failures and how you may improve, going forward.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

An Elephant in the Room Part 1 – Management Breakthroughs

Listening for the unsaid!To paraphrase Wikipedia – An “Elephant in the room” has become a management saying meaning an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. It applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss and based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to concern themselves with tangential or small and irrelevant issues rather than deal with the looming big one.

I don’t know whether it’s because elephants are now protected by law or not, but I’m coming across many more of them than I used to!

Tackling the difficult topics in business life is hard, really hard, especially if you’re not used to having these sorts of conversations. You can choose to ignore difficult conversations and still survive in business and many do! If you’re thinking, yep that’s me, then I’d advise you to think again. If you want to be the best you can be, then you absolutely need to read on. If not, this post is not for you.

The breadth of difficult conversations is huge, so I’m not going to be prescriptive. There are so many examples, but I’ll name a few, so that we’re on the same page:

  • Poor performance or capability
  • Discrimination
  • Bullying
  • Indirect aggression
  • Actual aggression
  • Sabotage
  • Poor relationship
I see two distinct types of Elephant in my line of work…and two ways of tackling them. The Management Elephant and the Leadership Elephant. This blog will focus on the former.
The Management Elephant
The Management Elephant tends to be when you have a member of your team that is exhibiting behaviours that are not what they need to be. I was going to write ‘behaviours that are not acceptable’, but therein lies the fundamental problem. Because these behaviours are often ignored, because the conversations that need to happen to change the behaviours are hard, and therefore don’t happen, makes the behaviours acceptable….that bit is your fault!
You owe it to your company, yourself and, if you want to be a good manager, your employee to have these conversations.
Below are some steps that I have found will help you to get the most from these often tough conversations:
1. Prepare
Whatever the conversation, don’t just turn up to the meeting without preparing, especially if you are angry about the situation. NEVER lose your temper. Believe me, YOU will feel worse about it afterwards, not them. Think about as many of the potential reactions and outcomes as you possibly think of and prepare your response.
2. Privacy
These sorts of conversations can often lead to the recipient being upset. Respect their privacy and ensure that the meetings are conducted in private and that they can exit the meeting into a safe environment.
3. Be direct
Get to the point, but talk about behaviours and impact. Be direct AND sensitive
Example:
Direct and Insensitive – You’re passing the buck. You have to change
Indirect and Sensitive – Have you thought at all how you interact with others?
Direct and Sensitive – Working with other departments is key to our success. I received feedback that others are having difficulty working with you and we need to explore how to improve these relationships.
4. Discuss consequences / impact
Depending on the issue being addressed, there could be a whole range of consequences from mild to serious. The fact you are trying to tackle the issue means that this is at least important to you and your relationship.
Many larger businesses have policies for capability / competence / performance etc and obviously there are potential legal ramifications for other more serious offences such as harassment or bullying.
Obviously if you are having the conversation early enough and in the right way, you can hopefully sort the problem before any of these consequences are invoked.
The key here is for you to convey the seriousness of the issue and what may happen if the behaviours are not altered.
5. Discuss action
Ensure that you work with your employee on an action plan  to rectify the behaviour and ensure this is time-bound and you have one or more follow-up conversations to ensure the issue is resolved. If it isn’t in a timely manner then you start to apply the consequences outlined above.
6. Be supportive
For some people, unacceptable behaviours may have been tolerated by previous management or they may be completely unaware on the impact their behaviour is having on others or the organisation. As a good manager you have an obligation to help them through the process and if you don’t feel equipped to deal with the situation, take advice from peers or a Human Resources expert (internally or externally).
Obviously if someone is breaking the law or in serious breach of their employment contract, then serious consequences must be considered and invoked immediately.
Be sure to read part 2 – Leadership Breakthroughs
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