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Simon Thiessen

CEO, Culture Consultant, Facilitator

This article was personally written by Simon Thiessen based on over 30 years experience with leadership and workplace culture

Do you have a poor performer in your team? This isn’t someone who is doing well but could do better, which describes most people in most workplaces. This is someone whose performance or behaviour is below a threshold of acceptability.

As uncomfortable as it may be, it is your responsibility as a leader (and not just a manager) to address this. The way to do that is by recognising there are only three outcomes when managing poor performance – and then eliminating one of them. Before we dive into those outcomes, let’s look at the consequences of unaddressed performance issues and a case study.

When you fail to eliminate one outcome, you allow several things to happen:

  • The overall performance of the team suffers
  • Morale in the team takes a hit and won’t recover until there are genuine efforts to address the performance
  • Standards decline across the team. When you hear someone say, ‘what’s the point?’ you know they are about to make a conscious choice to reduce their own performance because their efforts aren’t making a difference
  • The people your team exists to serve – internal or external – are going to get compromised outcomes
  • People within your team, peers and senior leadership perceive you as an ineffective leader
  • You develop or perpetuate habits that compromise your capacity as a leader

It’s a grim list, isn’t it? And it all comes back to not being prepared to eliminate one of the three outcomes. Consider this case study.

When Managing Poor Performance is too hard

This, unfortunately, is an authentic example that we witnessed in an organisation. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty! Sadly, we could fill a book with stories like these – and often at senior levels within organisations.

Meredith was one of 800 team members in an organisation that provided services to often vulnerable people. As a result, most of the team were humanistic, empathetic, and gentle. Many of them, Meredith included, hated and avoided conflict at all costs.

Over about 15 years, Meredith had moved through the hierarchy of the organisation, from front-line worker to senior manager. When we met Meredith, she reported to a member of the executive and was responsible for a team of well over 100 people.

To help her run her division, Meredith had a management team of her own – half a dozen managers, each responsible for their own sub-division. Over the years, they had done pretty well. There were always a few people not doing their job, and some who didn’t get on with each other, but some creative shuffling had dealt with those – or at least buried the issues. Sometimes people became frustrated and left because it was hard to get things done, or because they didn’t feel supported by the team. Most people, though, settled into a nice pattern of doing OK.

Colin and the toxic workplace culture

When the manager of one sub-division left, Meredith promoted someone from within the team. Colin wasn’t the ideal person, but Meredith knew how angry he would be if he didn’t get the job. Even though Colin wasn’t great at their work and tended to ‘ruffle a few feathers’, it was just easier to let him have a go. Somewhere in Meredith’s mind, she persuaded herself that she would break the habit of a lifestyle and deal with any issues – although she was sure there wouldn’t be any.

Within a few months, there was carnage. Colin changed some processes in the sub-division he managed, because he didn’t like them. In their place, Colin implemented an idea that he had proposed years earlier. Service levels suffered and clients complained. When team members approached him with concerns, Colin responded with, ‘I’m the boss and if you don’t like it, maybe you better look for another job.’

Two long-term members of Colin’s team left the organisation and standards slumped even further. Managers of other sub-divisions became frustrated about the spill over impact on their own teams and complained to Meredith. She promised to talk to Colin, but didn’t. Why? Because she had already spoken to him once about the issues within his team and he had accused her of undermining him and then sulked for a week. Even now, he was hostile whenever discussions veered towards issues in his team.

Within the teams, all those issues that Meredith had glossed over for years bubbled back to the surface. Suddenly, people with unresolved grievances found themselves in a climate where dissatisfaction was rife. Morale across the division declined and even long-term top performers declined. After all, why bust your guts to cover for people who weren’t doing their job? Why strive so hard when it wouldn’t make a difference, anyway?

Meredith’s demise

When the grumblings from clients and team members reached the executive, they questioned Meredith – which was about the time we really got to know her. While the executive was willing to support her, Meredith knew in her heart that the job wasn’t for her. After all, as unpleasant and toxic as Colin was, he wasn’t Meredith’s real problem. 

The real issue for Meredith was her default leadership style  that made her unwilling to eliminate one of the three outcomes for her poor performers – because of her avoidance of conflict. Instead, Meredith moved into another role within the organisation. It was a small compromise in seniority, income and future prospects, but there was one immense advantage for Meredith – it involved managing very few people.

managing poor performance

The three outcomes when managing poor performance

When you have someone performing poorly, you didn’t choose that. The poor performer made that choice and needs to own the consequences.

While you can’t force someone to stop performing poorly, you can ensure that the consequences are appropriate, which takes us back to the three outcomes, only two of which are acceptable.

  • The ideal outcome is that the poor performer improves their performance and becomes a valuable member of the team
  • The other acceptable outcome is that the poor performer recognises they must address their performance issues if they stay – so they choose to leave instead
  • The unacceptable outcome is that the poor performer stays but does nothing to improve their performance

Three critical elements in managing poor performance

There are three things that a manager must do to manage performance – whether that is inspiring high performance or managing poor performance:

  1. Communicate clear and reasonable expectations. Tell people what great looks like and then back it up with actions. When people hear one expectation (our clients deserve nothing less than the best!) but then observe inconsistent behaviour being accepted, what do you think they perceive as the real expectation?
  2. Abundant and honest feedback about what is working and what isn’t
  3. Accountability – the expectation that people own the outcomes of their own choices and actions

The golden rule of managing poor performance

These elements allow you to steer people toward outcome one – staying and improving. Sometimes, they nudge them towards outcome two – I’m not prepared to work with those expectations, so I’m out of here!

Critically, they make option three untenable. Why? Because they support the golden rule of managing poor performance.

Comfortable people don’t change – especially if the change you are asking them to make is uncomfortable.