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Are you really the 'baddie' when Managing Poor Performance?

Managing Poor Performance

Do you absolutely love managing poor performance and disciplining people?

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

Most people respond with something ranging from – It needs to be done, I do it well, but it’s not my favourite thing – to – I dread, hate and avoid it!

Managers often feel they are the ‘baddie’ – they have made someone unhappy, told them something they didn’t want to hear, and provoked uncomfortable and often unpleasant reactions. But does that really make you the baddie? Is that what you hope you will spend your days dealing with? Or are you only dealing with it because of the poor choices made by the person you need to speak with?

When managers get it wrong – managing poor performance

There are two broad ways that managers get managing poor performance wrong:

  1. Doing it badly–by being unreasonable or communicating inappropriately
  2. 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 was discussed, etc

If you are willing to deal with performance issues and ensure you do it reasonably and appropriately, you are not the baddie! No matter how badly they respond or how much they try to make you feel guilty.


We worked with an organisation recently that had a long established workplace culture of accepting mediocre performance and unacceptable behaviour. A lot of the team tried to do their best but motivation was low because several team members had been getting away with poor performance for too long. These people had a negative impact on standards, morale, and results.

Andrew was the manager of a medium-sized team. A member of his team, Ruth did a reasonable but inconsistent job on the task – and was a truly horrible team member to work with. Her colleagues had nicknamed her Ruthless, which needs no explanation!

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

The seeds of doubt

When we debriefed with Andrew, he was full of self-doubt. Was he being too harsh? Were Ruth’s complaints reasonable? Should he cut her some slack because of the personal issues?

We had to remind Andrew of the impact Ruth was having on the workplace and her 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? Lots of people are dealing with something in their personal life. Imagine if they all brought those issues into the workplace and allowed them to spill over into attacks on their teammates. Imagine if you, as the leader, allowed things from outside work to turn you into a tyrant (you haven’t, have you?)

Of course, we should support team members when they have genuine problems, but don’t let poor performers use this as a ‘get out of jail free card.’

You didn’t choose this path – but you have to follow it

The managers we work with don’t want to have issues of poor performance with their people. They would prefer not to have tough conversations. They don’t want to impose the consequences of performance issues on their people–but they don’t want to put up with it either.

It isn’t leaders who create these situations, it’s the team members. You don’t decide to make a team member uncomfortable and accountable for no reason. They put you in a position where you have no choice but to decide between acting or not. Really, that’s a choice between:

Managing poor performance takes leaders somewhere they would prefer not to go. Once a team member chooses to perform poorly, you have to go there – that’s part of being a leader. You not only have to go there, you have to be prepared to do it well. That may lead to outcomes you aren’t comfortable with–but you are following a path the team member chose.

Of course, that path should include many opportunities for the employee to stop what they are doing, get back on track and resolve the issues. If they ignore those opportunities, that is their choice.

Handing back accountability for poor performance

After we coached Andrew, he arranged a follow up meeting with Ruth and clarified that intended to hold her accountable for her performance and behaviour:

  • I considered your comments about other team members. None of them are perfect and I expect everyone in the team to strive to improve – but those are private conversations that I will have with them. Overall, I am very happy with their performance both on the task and as team members. I don’t believe your comments about these people are fair or valid.
  • I have thought about your complaints regarding the workplace and agree it isn’t perfect. However, no workplace is, and there is nothing you have raised that makes the workplace unacceptable. In fact, I feel it is a good place to work. If you dislike working here so much, is this the right workplace for you?
  • I have reflected on 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 don’t like is my holding you accountable and I believe I have been fair in the way I have done that. I plan to continue to hold you respectfully accountable, so, again, please 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. I will do my best to make allowances. If you prefer, I can arrange for you to speak to People & Culture or help you 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 performance 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 support to make those improvements, but ultimately, it will be your choice and your responsibility. Is that clear?

This was the choice you made when you became a leader

Very few people like being tough on other human beings- but, as a leader, inevitably, you will sometimes need to be firm. The key is being reasonable – and observing your team’s values while you do it. (Establish workplace values)

Don’t accept the mantle of leadership unless you are prepared to hold people accountable for their performance–and you can’t hold people accountable without ensuring there are consequences for poor choices. Of course, there should also be abundant consequences for good choices. Communication is key.  

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

A cottage by the sea?

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

Actually, Ruth’s performance improved briefly and then tapered away again. That led to another discussion–and the realisation that Andrew would no longer accept poor performance. Ruth started applying for other jobs (on company time) and within a few months, she was gone. Her replacement quickly reached a similar task performance level and–critically–was a much more cohesive team fit.

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

Need some help with your culture or looking for more resources? Our Podcast – Authenticity Transforming Workplace Culture is dedicated to helping leaders close the gap between the workplace culture they have, and the workplace culture they want.