How to deal with under performance

The very thought of an annual performance review is enough to strike fear in some managers and employees. This is a time-consuming process filled with awkward conversations, often pointless metrics and contrived goals, but is it also the ultimate ‘tick-the-box’ exercise?

A number of major companies have dispensed with annual performance reviews and instead use a less formal and more continuous approach to staff assessment.

Take Adobe, for example. In 2012 it abolished the annual staff review and introduced a more informal ‘check-in’ process. According to Donna Morris, executive vice president of customer and employee experience at Adobe, the check-in process focuses on “ensuring employees and managers set priorities, give and receive feedback, and chart career growth on an ongoing basis”.

She says “the results have been higher engagement, improved retention and stronger company performance”.

Performance management

Regardless of the approach your company takes, be it formal reviews or more casual check-ins, performance management is a key part of your role as a leader.

In a 2017 article, McKinsey states that effective performance management is “essential to businesses” and “helps them align their employees, resources and systems to meet their strategic objectives”.

“It works as a dashboard too, providing an early warning of potential problems and allowing managers to know when they must make adjustments to keep a business on track,” the McKinsey article notes. It also points out that performance management requires “frequent, honest, open and effective communication”.

While good performance management hinges on communication and clarity, there are other key elements too. In a 2018 article for Forbes, researchers and consultants David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom, discuss the importance of showing appreciation to your team.

“As a leader, it’s your responsibility to continuously communicate expectations, to define duties and to help people accomplish strategic objectives. That’s your job. But, if you want to be great at performance management, there’s a little secret you need to understand,” they add.

That secret? Show appreciation.

Appreciation and accountability

Rewarding good performance is important for team morale and to ensure that your employees know their hard work is valued. By the same token, taking action in cases of underperformance is also crucial. If managers turn a blind eye to problems in their team, it could demotivate other employees and lead to a dip in productivity, which ultimately will hit the bottom line.

Your role as manager

It’s your role as a manager to help each member of your team deliver their best work and to ensure that your team achieves its objectives. For any individual or team to deliver on goals and targets, they must understand what they are working towards and have a clear sense of what they need to do to achieve these goals. Setting out those expectations clearly is on you, as a leader.

So, before you approach a team member about potential problems with their work, ask yourself honestly:

  • Did you make it clear what you expected of them?
  • Did you define – and communicate – clear objectives for their role?

Assuming your team member was given clear goals, but is struggling to meet them, the first step is to try to get to the root of the problem. Invite them to an informal meeting or a coffee to talk about their work. But before you sit down for a chat, consider:

  1. Are they usually ‘on the ball’? Is this just a temporary blip?
  2. Are they dealing with any personal issues or changes in their personal circumstances at the moment?
  3. Are they getting to grips with a new role? Or are they taking on additional responsibilities or dealing with a new system?
  4. Do they need extra training or support?
  5. Are they clear on their duties, goals and so on?

Get to the root cause

When speaking with your employee, try to identify what’s causing their underperformance and find solutions.

If the underperformance is out of character, and perhaps stems from a personal problem, ask your team member what support the company can offer to help. Perhaps consider a more flexible working pattern or the delegation of some tasks for a short period to give the person some breathing space to get back on track?

If it’s a new team member who seems a little out of their depth, look at ways that you can help them fill in the gaps. Bear in mind that making mistakes enables us to grow and learn, so use this conversation as a way to look at areas where your team member has room to improve. Also look at ways that you as a leader could support those growth opportunities, such as providing extra training or pairing them with a more experienced team member for mentoring and support.

In some cases, underperformance might be a sign that an employee feels undervalued or is demotivated because they see limited scope to progress. Discuss ways that you could help them to re-engage with their role and build new skills, such as perhaps working with another team on a project.

Constructive feedback

According to a blog post by job and employer review website Glassdoor, managers should be specific and constructive when giving feedback to an underperforming employee. “Don’t pile on everything that needs improvement. Focus on one or two manageable issues at a time,” Glassdoor’s blog recommends. It also advises against showing frustration, pressuring the employee or issuing ultimatums.

After this initial conversation with your team member, you’ll hopefully have a clearer picture of how they are feeling about their role, what the problem is and how you can work together to solve it. With a plan in place to address the issues, schedule a follow-up conversation to review the situation.

Improvement plan

If you’ve provided the necessary supports, given your employee time to turn things around and there’s no evident progress within the agreed timeframe, you might need to take a more formal approach. One potential solution at this stage is to implement a performance improvement plan. This written plan sets out what performance improvements the employee needs to deliver and by when, and could act as a pre-cursor to a formal disciplinary process.

According to business representative group Ibec, using this type of approach helps to ensure consistency across different business units when it comes to managing underperformance. “Companies that utilise personal improvement plans to manage underperformance will generally use a standard internal template document to structure the discussion and will implement a similar timeframe for personal improvement plans,” Ibec’s website notes.

Hopefully, escalating things from a chat with some suggestions to a written plan of action will yield the necessary results. But if your employee is still not achieving the desired results, your next step will depend on your company’s HR procedures.

Consult HR

If you are in any doubt on your company’s disciplinary procedures or your responsibilities under employment law, consult your HR department before you go any further. Keep thorough records of your conversations with your employee on their performance and carefully document any plans you agree with them to address their performance issues.

For managers, giving negative feedback can be difficult. But failing to address poor performance in your team can lead to much bigger problems – so don’t put off those tricky conversations with an employee that’s struggling.