Are you guilty of letting poor performance slide?

Managing poor performance is not easy. Many leaders struggle with the battle of addressing performance issues and instead opt for the mid-year surprise discussion. Given that many employees are not overly receptive to constructive feedback, it makes sense that mangers are preferring to turn a blind eye and hope for the best.

Poor performance is a clear reflection of the employee, but it is also a reflection of leadership. As a manager, tough conversations are critically important as they are the fairest way to help employees know that there is a performance gap. Left unchecked, the employee may continue on a downhill spiral which could lead to termination.

Common leader excuses for avoiding the poor performance discussion

Talented, committed leaders are not immune to falling into the ‘excuses’ trap when they leave poor performance simmering. Some believe it is best for the team to seek harmony over excellence. Others are just not confident or competent to deliver bad news well. Irrespective of the reason, leaving poor performance unchecked is costly to the team and the broader business. In addition, it lets the employee down as they are robbed of the opportunity to improve.

Below are some of the common leader excuses for letting poor performance slide:

Employees going through a hard time

It is appropriate and encouraged to provide employees latitude and empathy when they are experiencing trauma. Suffering the loss of a loved one, financial strain, divorce or even troublesome teenagers are all common reasons that performance drops. There should be a strategy in place to support the employee back to full duties at the correct pace for them. However, if performance is still low after an appropriate timeframe, it is time to address.

Avoiding confrontation

Many leaders will avoid a difficult discussion because it makes them feel uncomfortable. However, avoidance is not leadership and tackling the discussion empowers the employee to improve.

Not wanting to upset the team dynamics

Sometimes leaders will avoid the tough discussions because they do not want to risk losing a popular team member or someone who has strong technical expertise.

Fearful about addressing a minority group

On occasion, leaders are concerned about addressing the performance of a minority group, such as an employee with a disability or a First Nations employee. As long as the discussion is performance related and reasonable for the position, this should not be feared.

Not wanting to lose ‘headcount’

At times, leaders will hold onto a poor performer because they are concerned about losing headcount. They would rather have a low performer than risk not getting a replacement approved.

Concern about missing team targets

Some leaders would prefer to keep a low performer than ‘be a person down’ when trying to reach sales or productivity targets.

Afraid of losing intellectual property

A reluctance to address poor performance can be closely aligned to a concern of losing an employee who holds the most knowledge around systems or processes.

6 tips for addressing poor performance

By the time the mid-year review rolls around, there are often poor performance or behaviours entrenched in the employee. Leaders become increasingly frustrated, and engagement drops in employees. However tempting it is to turn your back, proactively managing poor performance can yield incredible results. Here are 6 tips for keeping poor performance at bay:

1. Use the ‘hot stove’ principle

Douglas McGregor devised a leadership principle in the 60s for managing performance. His ‘hot stove’ rule is an analogy between poor employee choices and touching a hot stove. In essence, it is about helping everyone to understand that ‘the stove is hot’ and explaining the ramifications of touching it. A ‘hot stove’ impacts each person that touches it without delay and importantly, without bias. Adopting this principle simply means to address poor performance in a timely manner, irrespective of our bias. Putting off discussions creates a false performance economy.

2. Adjust your mindset

Instead of thinking that your ‘performance chat’ is going to break the relationship, consider that this discussion could be the greatest gift to the employee. Gaining clear, specific feedback that outlines a performance gap empowers the employee to be aware of the issue and take steps to improve. This conversation could be the one that saves their job or the reason that they are not overlooked for promotion.

3. Start thinking like you are a partnership

Sometimes leaders are brave enough to have the conversation but are guilty of dropping the performance bomb and running. When leaders understand that a partnership mindset and targeted coaching can benefit both parties, improvement begins to happen.

4. Use a SMART approach

The mountain can sometimes seem too big to climb and employees give up. Leaders are encouraged to use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timeframe) approach to break the goal down into manageable pieces.

5. Check in regularly

Once the SMART goals have been identified and a plan to execute the ‘how’ has been agreed to, leaders should not ‘set and forget’. Leaders have an important role to ‘follow up’ and ‘follow through’, which means not just checking in to see how the employee is doing but taking accountability to set the employee up for success.

6. Ask the right questions

Underperformance can result from many issues, but it is usually not intentional. Most people want to succeed and are willing to do the work to get there. Authentic leaders will dig deep and ask the right questions to discover how they can break through the performance barrier. Consider asking:

  • Is there something you need from me or the business so you can reach the best of your ability?
  • Do you feel that there are any factors (internally or externally) that are preventing you from success?
  • Is there an element of your role that is demotivating you?
  • What can I do better to help you reach your goals?
  • Are you clear on how your work/position helps the business achieve its goals?
  • What can we do to better use your talents?

Start the conversation early

There is no question that a performance discussion can be challenging, but starting the conversation early places the employee in the best position to accept feedback and begin bridging the gap. The longer the leader waits, the closer the employee moves towards a formal performance management process where it simply may be too late.

Further information 

Ai Group has experienced HR consultants who can partner with your business to devise workplace leadership strategies designed to increase engagement and operational efficiency. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.