How to Deal with Poor Performance

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

Helping underperformers to get out of a productivity rut is one of the trickiest manager tasks. Poor performance can manifest in a couple of different ways. Sometimes it’s a new hire not living up to business expectations; others, it’s a trusted team member who suddenly experiences a productivity drop. However, poor performance is not necessarily an irreversible situation. It can often be a request for help. A great manager will go into the extra trouble to help their team member while being fair to the rest of the team.

In this LBD issue, we’ll develop a framework to help with underperformers in your team. However, you should also remember that we’re going through the second year of a global epidemic. People are still reeling from all the COVID-related havoc in their lives, including losses in their immediate family and even Long COVID symptoms. Burnout and work-related stress are at an all-time high. While you can only impact your employees’ lives to a certain extent, make sure you dedicate ample time and effort to aid them. Revise your expectations, especially if they used to perform well but struggle as of late.

⛏ Dig deeper

To get started, you have to find out the reason behind your employee’s less-than-stellar performance. There are three main reasons someone might be underperforming in their work:

  • They lack the experience and skills needed to do the job expected of them.
  • They don’t know they’re underperforming, which means they don’t understand what you expect of them.
  • They are a poor fit for the job, lacking the motivation to do it well.

You have to stop and think about how you, as their manager, have contributed to their low performance. Maybe you put a little too much trust into their skills, leaving them without support while they work on an ambitious stretch goal. You might be avoiding an awkward conversation by withholding corrective feedback during your 1:1 meetings. Or you promised them a different set of challenges when they signed up for the role, but you never came through on your promise.

Now is not the time for self-punishment. After you understand how you’ve contributed to the problem, it’s time to take action.

🧮 A framework for action

Face the problem head-on. Don’t tiptoe around the fact that the employee doesn’t perform at an acceptable level for your company. Moreover, don’t assume you’re the only one that sees the problem. If you leave underperformance to fester, you’re in danger of creating resentment and feelings of unfairness in your team.

Corroborate your theory. When you pinpoint a performance issue, don’t just run to HR for help. Try to check your bias by running a confidential 360 review for the underperformer. Talk privately with people that work with them, coming from different backgrounds and seniority levels. Don’t focus on confirming your gut feeling. Keep an open mind and be willing to be proven wrong.

Be direct and honest. Don’t expect your employee to realize the error of their ways and change, all by themselves. In your next 1:1 meeting, raise the issue by giving examples based on facts, not your musings or intuition. Instead of saying something like “I feel that your performance is sub-par”, focus on specific outcomes they missed. During the discussion, check their reactions to make sure that they acknowledge the problem and keep a growth mindset. Another good idea is to ask them to develop ideas on how you can help, thus avoiding unnecessary assumptions. Try to make the conversation feel like a dialogue, not a dressing down. Give plenty of time to answer or schedule a follow-up meeting.

Keep in touch. After discussing possible ways to help, keep a close eye on your employee to see how they address this new reality. You can increase the cadence of your 1:1 meetings, hold office hours, and generally be available for questions and feedback throughout the week. Make sure you check with them every week. If they show signs of positive change, give them praise clearly, so that they know if they’re making progress.

📜 No change? Time for a PIP

Even if the underperformer in your team hasn’t managed to change for the better after following the action plan above, it might not be time to let them go just yet. That might come as a surprise to some. Still, the amount of time and effort to fire an employee and hire their replacement, especially if they hold significant institutional knowledge, is not trivial.

If you don’t see positive change, even after multiple tries to get an underperformer to cooperate, it’s time to create a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). These plans are designed to help poor performers and are not meant to kickstart their termination process. A PIP, much like a negative performance review, should not surprise the employee.

The basic steps for Performance Improvement Plans are:

  • Give them enough time to showcase actual change. A PIP should last at least two weeks, up to one month or a quarter.
  • Include SMART goals to the plan - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives that will actively help them improve.
  • Don’t leave them alone in navigating this difficult period. Make sure you’re there to provide feedback with every step of the way.

Sometimes, when the performance issue is so significant that it leads to a PIP, the rest of the team will have questions. Acknowledge the problem but remain respectful and don’t share any confidential information. You shouldn’t hide a situation like this from them. Make sure you react calmly and communicate that you work together with the underperformer to develop a productive solution.

🤔 When is it time to let go?

Sometimes, even the noblest intentions don’t work out. If the underperforming employee doesn’t improve after working on their PIP, it may be time to part ways.

There are countless (and sometimes conflicting) resources on the best way to lay an employee off, but there’s one thing that most experts agree on: you have to move quickly. Don’t let rumours and office gossip obscure the real reasons why you’re letting an underperforming employee go.

Make sure you don’t forget that:

When you fire somebody, it not only affects that person, but also you, the firm, and everybody around you.

— Jean-François Manzoni

So move quickly. Don’t forget that letting people go is part of your job description. Don’t avoid dealing with an unpleasant situation; be fair and empathetic while thinking about the team members left behind.

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