As leaders, or leadership teams, start to think about how to handle performance on their team for the first time, they often focus on who they deem as underperformers first. As a result, you’ll see leaders begin targetting their underperformers openly or subvertly. Mark Zuckerberg warned his employees that they were “turning up the heat” on underperformers and added, “You might decide this place isn’t for you, and that’s OK with me.”
Not exactly inspiring for an employee or for the leader that has to carry out the direction from their CEO. Great talent wants to be involved with great leadership and if you handle underperforms the wrong way, you may get rid of your least effective people, but your best people may bail on you as well. It’s important to tackle underperformance professionally and consistently if everyone.
Be clear on expectations from the beginning and make them realistic
Your expectations and goals for every employee should be crystal clear. Ask yourself:
- What do they have to do to be considered effective in their role?
- What are the expectations on their behaviors and how they conduct their work and interact with others? (Look to your values here)
- What resources do they need to be successful?
- Are the goals realistic to meet?
This clarity helps immensely as you lead others. Setting a consistent cadence of conversation also helps. Performance conversations are less likely to bubble up or to be a surprise for anyone, which reduces drama and stress in the workplace. Think about how a conversation would go if there were no ambiguity in what the person needed to do and you were checking in with them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
If a person is struggling to meet expectations ask them for their input on the why. The goal may not be realistic to hit under the current situation or there may be outside factors that are influencing the work that you hadn’t considered before.
Always talk to the person before taking action
I’ve shared over the years about my interaction with leaders who just wanted to let go of people without having a conversation. I get it; they are frustrated with their limits and just want to move on. A mature leader knows that you’ve got to have those crucial conversations with others. They will actively listen (Show 303), and attempt to understand the root cause of the issue.
Trust is very important to help this conversation land in a positive place. When the person feels psychologically safe they will be more likely to open up and share why they are struggling.
Shows to help with trust building
- Building trust with a new team (323)
- Building trust when you are new (307)
- What to do when someone breaks your trust (275)
- Build great working relationships (303)
Build a plan with a clear path to rehabilitation
There are a few types of underperformers and the approach to these people changes depending on what their root issue is.
Blockers: These are people that do just enough to get by, but how they do their work is not aligned with expectations. They are also typically resistant to any kind of change that impacts them. Help these see the impact of their decisions on themselves and others. Frame up the challenges in a way that matters to them. They likely highly value respect and honor towards themselves, helping them understand how their actions are counter to that value as they deal with others.
Inconsistent Contributor: These are people exactly as the name describes – inconsistent. Perhaps it’s in the work that they do or you are not sure what version you are going to get of that person on a daily basis. Dig in here to understand the root cause, tighten up your cadence of check-ins and get agreement from them that they understand expectations. Call out the inconsistently plainly. It is also helpful to provide extra support and resources to help get them back on track; this could be a mentor, learning opportunities, or additional headcount support.
Detractors: These people may not be a great fit for the organization or in the extreme case, they are all out sabotaging the team’s success. Make sure that you have partnered with your upline leaders and HR partners here as you walk this path. Have a solidly written performance improvement plan with dates on expectations.
Potential Gems: These people may have been great and could be great again, but today they may not be in the right role. In these circumstances, help the person find a role internally that better aligns with their gifts, talents, and aspirations. They want to do their best and likely love the organization, but perhaps they took on a role because someone asked them to, or they didn’t realize the full scope of what the role would entail.
Overall your underperformer will likely fall into the inconsistent contributor category with detracts and blockers being more rare and potential gems being the rarest.
Address your underperformers with empathy and care as you help them back on track with expectations. Remember that they are people too and still deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect. Addressing the underperformance the right way ensures that you and the other person have the best chance to turn things around.
Make a better tomorrow.