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Who really starts the performance management game?

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 31-Mar-2016 09:00:00

performance management bully.jpg

Do you totally love disciplining your people?

If you answered ‘Yes’, we have another problem to sort out! Let’s put that aside for another time.

I am guessing that most of you answered something like:

  • I hate it!
  • I don’t like it but I know it needs to be done
  • I am really uncomfortable with it – but I do it anyway
  • I am really uncomfortable with it and do anything I can to avoid it!
  • Its’s not my favourite thing but I am OK with it

I get it. Performance management can be confronting. It involves really difficult conversations – often with really difficult people.

Often, it feels like you are the baddie in this situation. But, that’s where you need to stop and reconsider. There are only two things that managers get wrong in managing poor performance:

  • Doing it badly – by being unreasonable, unfair or communicating in an inappropriate way
  • Avoiding performance management altogether – or dealing with it weakly by failing to hold people accountable, not being specific, allowing conversations to be derailed, not following through on what has been discussed, etc

Ruth – who wasn’t ruthless!

I worked with an organisation recently that had a number of people who had been getting away with underperformance for too long. One manager (let’s call her Ruth) had a team member (let’s call him Andrew) who did a reasonable but inconsistent job on the task - and who was a truly horrible team member to work with.

Andrew was moody, aggressive, selfish and dishonest. When Ruth, after learning some new skills and developing a performance plan, sat Andrew down for a serious (but respectful) discussion, he blamed her, complained about the working conditions and his teammates, told her that he had issues in his personal life, cried, got angry and threatened to complain to Ruth’s manager. In other words, he did everything but take accountability. Sound familiar?

The seeds of doubt

doubt-1160744_960_720.pngWhen we debriefed with Ruth, she was full of self-doubt. Were his complaints reasonable, was she being too harsh, should she cut him some slack because of the personal issues?

We had to remind her of the impact Andrew was having on the workplace and his fellow workers, that no workplace is perfect and that for negative people there will always be something not right – especially those who are squirming like crazy to avoid being accountable for their own behaviours.

What about the personal issues? Who doesn’t have something they are dealing with in their personal life? Imagine if everyone brought their ‘personal issues’ into into the workplace and used them as an excuse to attack our teammates. Imagine if you as the leader allowed things from outside work to turn you into a tyrant (you haven’t, have you?)

Sure, cut good people some slack when they have genuine problems but don’t let underperforming employees use this as a ‘get out of jail free card.’

You didn’t choose this game but you do have to play it 

performance management game.jpgRemember, managers don’t want to have to have issues of underperformance and poor behaviour with their people. They don’t want to impose the consequences of these issues on their people – but they don’t want to put up with it either.

In other words, it isn’t the leader who created this situation, it was the employee. You didn’t decide to make a team members uncomfortable and accountable for no reason. They put you in a position where you had no choice but decide between acting or not. Really that’s a choice between:

  • Putting up with underperformance and poor behaviour
  • Taking action to prevent or stop it

I know that this doesn’t feel like a game – but often there is some ‘game playing’ going on. You didn’t choose this ‘game’. The employee did when they decided to underperform.

Once the employee chooses this game as a leader you have to play it. That may lead to outcomes you aren’t comfortable with – but you are playing the game that the employee chose.

In the course of that ‘game’, there are many opportunities for the employee to stop what they are doing, get back on track and the problem is resolved. If they ignore those opportunities, that is their choice.

managing poor performance ebook download

The anatomy of a tough and fair conversation

performance_management discussion.png

So, what approach did Ruth take with Andrew. After we coached her, she arranged a follow up meeting with Andrew and made some really clear points:

  • We have looked at the rest of the team and we are really happy with their performance both on the task and as good team members. We don’t believe your comments about these people are fair or valid.
  • We have thought about your complaints regarding the workplace and we agree it isn’t perfect. However, no workplace is and there is nothing you have raised that makes the workplace unacceptable. In fact, we feel it is pretty good place to work. If you are uncomfortable working here, perhaps this isn’t the workplace for you?
  • I have personally considered the feedback you gave me. I will always be open to feedback and will always strive to improve – so thank you. However, most of what you didn’t like was related to my holding you accountable and I believe I have been fair and reasonable in the way I have done that. I plan to continue to hold you accountable so, again, you may want to consider whether this is the right position for you
  • If you have issues in your personal life that we can support you with, please let me know. If I understand what is going on for you, I will do my best to make appropriate allowances. If you prefer, I can arrange for you to speak to HR or access an external employee assistance program. However, treating your colleagues unfairly is inappropriate regardless of personal circumstances. Is that clear?
  • Finally, the points I raised in our previous discussion about your underperformance and your interpersonal behaviour, still stand. You need to improve those areas. If you don’t, further and more serious consequences are likely. I will give you the necessary support to make those improvements but ultimately it will be your choice and your responsibility. Is that clear?

It comes with the mantle of leadership

Very few people like being tough on other human beings- but, as a leader, it is inevitable you will need to be tough at times. As long as you are fair while you do it.

Don’t accept the mantle of leadership unless you are prepared to hold people accountable for their performanceas part of that role – and you can’t hold people accountable without making them accept that there are consequences for their actions.

In the extreme, those consequences may include formal warnings and dismissal. You should never start the process unless you are prepared to go that far if the employee drives the process there.

However, with strong performance management, you will develop many more people than you will dismiss. If you avoid performance management, you let down your organisation, your team, yourself and, critically, the underperformer.

By holding people accountable, you give them the opportunity to be what they can and should be.

A cottage by the sea?


What happened with Ruth and Andrew? They ended up falling in love, buying a cottage by the sea and living happily ever after.

Actually, Andrew’s performance improved briefly and then tapered away again. That led to another discussion – and the realisation that Ruth wasn’t going to simply accept his underperformance. He started applying for other jobs (on company time) and within a few months he was gone. His replacement quickly reached a similar task performance level and – critically – was selected for both task ability and team fit.

A final note. Could this have ended differently? By the time the performance management process was started, probably not. But if a strong performance management plan had been created and implemented before the issues and attitudes became too embedded, maybe.

GAM infographic managing poor performance


Topics: Leadership, Team Development