In a recent article, I addressed the challenge a manager faces coping with a subordinate whose workplace behavior hinders his or her own performance, or is disruptive to the work environment itself. Although it can be a difficult challenge, dealing with and resolving a behavior problem at work often resolves any related performance issues as well. In this article, I turn my attention to performance problems themselves and why, as with behavior problems, they should be quickly and effectively addressed.
As a member of your organization’s management team, you are expected to manage any and all performance deficiencies in your subordinates: PERIOD. When I say this emphatically to my workshop participants, I often hear in response that in reality, many managers in their organization ignore performance issues and routinely pass sub-standard performers on to others with nary a warning. My friends, this does not make this practice right, does not excuse it, does not do service to your organization’s best interest and success, is unfair and disrespectful to both your unsuspecting manager colleagues and the subordinate, and counterfeits the position of authority you hold. It is simply bad management.
How you choose to deal with subordinate performance problems helps to define you as a manager and the best managers are those who address them head on. They understand how important it is both to their organization and, out of respect, to their subordinates who may need their help to overcome a deficiency or, if a square peg in a round hole, find a better employment fit. So how do the best managers go about addressing performance problems head on?
First, they are always looking for the early signs of a struggling subordinate. Signs of a potentially serious performance problem often surface early in a subordinate’s assignment and only get worse and are harder to deal with if ignored. Early intervention offers the best chance to assess whether training and mentoring are all that are required, or whether the fit between the subordinate’s talents and his or her assignment needs to be re-evaluated.
Second, the best managers never personally attack or demean the subordinate as inadequate, stupid, incompetent, or a failure. Rather they endeavor to help the subordinate clearly understand that it is about the work not them, and the level of performance he or she must attain. They are also keen to convey their willingness to do everything possible to help the subordinate achieve the improvement required.
Third, the best managers strive to articulate their performance expectations and standards in terms of criteria that are observable and measurable. A subordinate needs to know and understand the target he or she must hit, not be left wondering what exactly the boss is actually looking for from them. Abstract statements like “improved quality, creativity, team spirit, better numbers, or initiative” may sound great but help little if not accompanied by concrete examples of what these notions look like to the boss in behavior and output. It is really simple, if a subordinate doesn’t understand what you precisely want, how can they give it to you?
Fourth, the best managers always require a subordinate to play back their understanding of what they have just been told about performance deficiencies, requirements, and standards to be certain that they and the subordinate are speaking the same language. If writing it all down to assure a common understanding is needed to facilitate achieving the necessary clarity, they do so.
Fifth, without being harsh, the best managers endeavor to leave no doubt in an underperforming subordinate’s mind that achieving an acceptable level of performance quality — however measured — is a non-negotiable requirement for continuing in an assignment, advancement, pay increases, and perhaps job retention. Maintaining the organization’s work quality standards is a principle element of what a manager is paid for. Meeting those standards — not just showing up and doing some work — is what your subordinates are paid for.
Finally, the best managers are those prepared to follow through until performance issues are resolved, whatever the outcome. I am well aware that doing so usually takes time, multiple one-on-one meeting, and in many organizations involves considerable paper work and process hurdles that must be negotiated. But ignoring subordinate performance issues or giving up because it is “just too hard”, is a dis-service to both your organization and the subordinate involved.
In the end, improved performance and a happy, fully engaged, productive subordinate is always the ideal outcome. But if the end result requires that the subordinate move to another assignment or line of work, the best managers want the subordinate to feel they have been given fair opportunity to improve and that the subordinate personally recognizes the need to move on as well.