Top 5 things to help managers deal with underperformance


Karen Findlay (HR Manager at St Monica Trust) and Sarah Vogel ( Co-director at People Development Associates) share their best tips…



1. Develop a positive mind set about tackling things


Many managers fear the worst and worry ‘what will happen if…’ In fact they almost certainly fantasise in their darker moments that world war 3 will break out if they dare to tackle x about their performance


So why are these kind of conversations avoided? Popular reasons we get told are:


It will make it worse: I don’t want to open up the can of worms

it will spoil the team atmosphere

They have too much on their plate right now to deal with this

I have too much on MY plate right now to deal with this

No one’s ever told x before, why should I (how should I??)

I don’t have time to plan how to get the conversation right


The likelihood is it is almost certainly costing managers more NOT to tackle it, (in terms of lost business, team morale, the insidious spread of underperformance, their own reputation) than it would to tackle it and get it resolved. So before you even begin, develop a positive mind set about the conversation.


After all, what we all want is to bring about a resolution. What could be bad about resolving things? A good, healthy confrontation conversation is not about ‘giving someone a good telling off, putting them straight or getting it off your chest’. It is about both parties explaining their side of things and having some space and time to work out together how to resolve it.


Remember: the mind set you take into the conversation, will affect the results you get.


2. Talk it through with your line manager and HR


An early conversation about underperformance can often avoid cases developing into formal processes. So as soon as under performance is spotted talk it through with your manager and or HR. Consider what options you have and how best to have the conversation with the individual.


Ask your manager and or HR about how they think this person may react and what strategies you could adopt to deal with these. Be clear what the support mechanisms for you are in this. Canvas their support. Often people fear taking a performance case to the formal stages as they worry they will not get the backup they need, and this may be unfounded.


So DO talk it through with someone who’s not involved. Ask them to challenge your reality and perception. Rarely does the worst happen. Our catastrophic imaginings can just be a reason to continue to leave it, letting it grow, build and spread….


3. Become skilled at having ‘the conversation’


Many people fear fluffing it up in the first minutes of a conversation.


Look at the 7 Fierce principles and think about which ones could help you. Consider where you want to start your conversation. Practise saying out loud what you want to say. Ask an independent person to listen to what you plan to say and tell you how it sounds.  Remember you will need to be light on your feet when handling the resulting conversation. You can’t script the whole thing (which under confident managers will want to do), you have to stay connected and use your intuition, and work out together what the next steps will be. Most of all master the courage to interrogate THEIR reality.


4. Get support as you take someone through a process to improve their capability


Anyone who’s ever had to take a member of their team through a capability process knows it is a bumpy and arduous road to travel: energy sapping, time draining and generally not on anyone’s ‘fun things to do at work’ list. But remember, successful outcomes are reached ‘one conversation at a time, gradually then suddenly’ and hanging in there in this long game of performance improvement is exactly what we need to do and support managers in doing.


One of our clients who has been really successful at sustaining a great positive performance culture runs ‘performance clinics’ for any managers having to take someone through capability. They get to meet up and discuss how it is going with HR, let off steam, get support (and constructive challenge if they want it) and generally realise they are not alone.


Remember it’s like joining the under performer at their bus stop and taking them on the journey to get them to where you need them to be.



5. Practise what you preach


Any organisation wanting to develop a performance culture where it is safe for anyone to raise issues, where people are encouraged and supported to resolve them as quickly and effectively as possible and where it generally feels like the Mokita* count is low, also needs to make sure that there is an upward flow of feedback too.


Do you encourage team members to tell you when they are off track? Are your  teams encouraged to name the unnameable? Are real issues raised and tackled at meetings?


If not, then managers in middle or first line positions will not feel best able to tackle their own teams and individuals. Leaders in the organisation may need to demonstrate by example that they too do what they are asking others to do. Attend the same training, be in the room, ‘here, prepared to be nowhere else’ and ask tough questions like


‘what’s getting in the way of our success and happiness?

What would you do if you were in my shoes?


*Mokita: a Maori word meaning ‘that which is known but never talked about’