The two uncomfortables and three outcomes of performance management
Employees may perform brilliantly – or diabolically. They may have a great attitude – or one that stinks. They may behave like a model corporate citizen – or like the team member from hell.
All of those things are the employee’s choice.
And then it’s your turn. Your turn to make some choices about what to do, how to respond, whether to accept the choices they are making.
As you make those choices, keep a golden rule in mind: never, ever make someone comfortable with underperformance.
Why is this so critical? If the choices they are making are poor, presumably you are going to want to see a change in behaviour, performance or attitude. So what are your performance management options to achieve that?
- You could talk with them about how important it is to be a good team player and appeal to ‘their better nature.’ Honestly, how’s that working out so far? It may be their failure to activate their ‘better nature’ that has likely led to the underperformance in the first place. This approach is OK – as long as it is part of a broader strategy
- You could angrily demand improvements. That rarely works because it is too easy to dismiss what you say as ranting
- You could ignore what they are doing and hope that they change. They won’t. Why would they? They are completely comfortable the way they are, change is uncomfortable, so why would they go there?
The remaining option: remain ruthlessly calm, explain to them why they need to change (impact on the team, results, morale, other individuals, etc) and then make it highly uncomfortable to not change.
Why? Because people love being comfortable and hate being uncomfortable.
Think about your own reactions in this situation: it’s a cold winter’s day and you have a meeting to attend tonight. First you go home, get changed, have dinner and maybe even sit on the couch. You’re warm, relaxed, comfortable.
Now, how excited are you feeling about going to that meeting? Leaving the comfort of home and going out in the cold? Getting uncomfortable again? It’s really hard to get of that couch! It can even feel hard to go back out when we are going somewhere fun rather than to a meeting!
That’s how your underperformer is feeling. They are happy where they are. Why would they move? Unless not moving is more uncomfortable and that’s where you come in with a careful and deliberate performance management plan.
Making underperformance appropriately uncomfortable
Of course, you have to be careful. You should never make an employee inappropriately uncomfortable. The strategies and approach you use must be ethical and legal. For example, you definitely shouldn’t:
- Humiliate an underperformer in front of other team members
- Make them work hours beyond which they are employed for
- Have them do duties that fall outside their employment contract. You can’t make someone clean the toilets with a toothbrush regardless of how often you see it happen in movies.
- Unfairly discriminate against them
- Intimidate them
- Physically or emotionally harass them
- Remove something they are contractually or legally entitled to
Honestly, if you actually want to do any of these things, we have bigger problems to discuss.
Putting aside these draconian responses, we still have plenty of options such as:
- Make them more accountable – regular reports on progress, meetings to discuss plans more often until their performance gets up to speed
- Make them ineligible for some opportunities such as training, higher duties and favoured tasks
- Have them work under increased scrutiny. Micro management gets a lot of bad press – but is a great leadership style when it is used at the right time (and not as a default style). Performance management of an underperformer is an ideal time to use some micro management
- Not offering them the same flexibility that higher performing team members are offered
- Implement a formal performance management plan and have tough but respectful discussions. The knowledge that they are in a formal management process is enough to make some underperformers uncomfortable to change
- Be prepared to issue formal warnings when appropriate – effective performance management relies on a clear connection between choices and consequences
None of these things involves unfairly treating them. It is legal, ethical and appropriate to treat someone differently as long as it based purely on performance - that is not discrimination.
Of course some people think they have a get out of jail free card. They claim they are being victimised as soon as their manager tries to implement appropriate performance management measures. They have learnt that this is a magic button: they scream harassment or discrimination, a manger goes pale, the issue goes away and they go on being a crappy performer. Don’t fall for that. Apply the rule of two reasonables – have reasonable expectations and communicate them in a reasonable way and you are on strong ground.
Managing poor performance can lead to three two outcomes
When people are underperforming, there are three options. They could:
- Improve their performance
- Leave the organisation
- Keep performing just as they are
That final option is the problem. Many people believe that they can get away with continued underperformance without experiencing any consequences.
Managers often report that, following a discussion about performance, an employee improves briefly but inevitably slides backwards. There is a reason for this – they are caught between ‘the two uncomfortables.’
When the manager speaks to them that makes the employee uncomfortable so they improve a little bit to get the manager off their back. However, improving their performance probably means doing things they aren’t comfortable with either. After a safe time, when they think the manager is no longer paying attention, they drift back to their old level.
Its simple logic: they are more uncomfortable making the required change than they are staying as they are. Therefore, they stay as they are.
As leader, you need to work the logic too. You need to make not changing the most uncomfortable option – and you need to maintain that discomfort for long enough for the change to stick. When you do that, you reduce the options to two:
- Improve their performance (move up)
- Leave the organisation (move out)
If they can cope with the discomfort of changing, they improve and stay. In reality they may choose to leave. Either is fine. The one outcome I can’t and won’t accept is having them stay and not improve – and you shouldn’t accept that outcome either.