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One of the most daunting tasks for any manager, and especially a newly appointed manager (who often manage people who were formerly at the same level), is dealing with poor performance. However – not dealing with poor performance will, in the long run, give a manager much bigger problems to overcome.
This article provides some practical advice for managers on how to prepare for, conduct, and follow up a meeting to tackle poor performance
Preparing to Raise the Issue
1. Define and clarify the problem
- What is the basis of your concern, and is this justified? Is the problem serious enough to warrant action? Can you, and should you, live with it or is the behaviour or performance unacceptable?
- What, precisely, is the gap between the person’s behaviour/performance and what is required?
- ‘Attitude problems’ must be redefined clearly and specifically in terms of the observable behaviour manifested by the person concerned and its effects. Performance problems need to be quantified or described with reference to agreed and clearly defined standards and guidelines.
- What change do you want to result from the discussion? You cannot raise an issue without having a clear picture of the new behaviour or revised level of performance you expect from the member of staff.
- What facts/evidence do you have? Are you happy about the information you have, and about its source? If you need more information, from where can you get it? What records or other sources of data exist? Is there anyone else to whom you need to speak?
2. Will the individual recognise that there is a problem?
It may be dangerous to assume that the person concerned is aware that what he/she is doing is not acceptable. This may be because:
- Standards and expectations, relating to job performance and conduct, have not been made sufficiently clear (perhaps when the person first joined the company).
- Previous feedback was vague, or was not given at all
- No specific action plan was agreed at a previous problem-solving discussion.
- The individual seems unaware of policy guidelines (e.g. regarding absence reporting, dress code etc).
- The individual is insensitive to the effects of his/her style on other people.
You will need to establish what, if anything, has been said to the individual before, how he/she responded and what, if anything, was agreed. This may involve your consulting the previous appraisal form and/or speaking with a previous supervisor or manager.
Thinking through this process will give you an indication of how the individual is likely to react to you during the discussion, and you can plan your strategy accordingly.
3. Has the individual demonstrated acceptable performance/conduct at other times?
If you can identify situations or periods when he/she got it right (i.e. when he/she performed well), either now or in the past, this will help you to clarify the precise nature of the current problem.
You will be able to describe the difference in specific terms, make your feedback to the individual much more focused and define your requirements in a much more useful way, aiding action planning.
Also, demonstrating the individual’s capacity to produce what is required will enable you to maintain a positive, motivational slant in the discussion.
4. Consider any contributory factors or mitigating circumstances
A wide range of issues concerning the clarity of the person’s job, the working environment, colleagues, your leadership style and external factors may have influenced a performance or conduct problem.
While some of these issues may emerge more fully during the discussion, you may be able to identify some pointers of your own beforehand from your knowledge of the individual.
5. Establish back-up/take advice
Your manager may offer advice based on previous experience of dealing with staff related difficulties, and will be in a position to reassure you if you are feeling uncertain about whether or not to raise a sensitive issue with a member of staff.
Even if you are clear about what you intend to do, it is often a good idea to brief your manager before you talk to the individual. This can be useful if you are concerned about the individual’s reaction to you.
It forewarns your manager and enables you to establish his/her support if the matter has to be referred up at a later date or in the case of any dispute between you and the job holder.
Conducting the Discussion
Establishing the ‘gap’
In this part of the discussion, you set out to explore the issue, to clarify the problem and to reach a consensus with the individual about the nature of any ‘gap’ between his/her current performance/conduct and what is expected.
You need to give the individual your feedback and explain why some change needs to take place. Your feedback should relate to facts, which can be supported by practical specific examples. Feedback based on generalisations about a person’s character, personality or attitudes is seldom likely to be well-received and does not lend itself to a commitment to change.
Prior to giving your feedback, it is sensible to ask the individual for his/her explanation. This is vital for several reasons:
- You may pick up new information which could put a different complexion on the problem.
- It demonstrates to the individual that you have not already jumped to a conclusion about the problem and its solution.
- It gives you a chance to assess the individual’s attitude in the interview itself.
- Some people will open up on an issue, making it easier for you both to reach a consensus on the problem and move to the action planning stage.
Sometimes, the self discipline administered by the employee may be harsher than any feedback or action being considered by the manager or supervisor.
Ask before you tell. This approach, making use of open ended questions when appropriate, should be used to encourage the individual to explain his/her view of events, to explore performance and conduct and its effects on his/her work and others, and to look at the situation from your point of view.
You are trying to get the individual to take responsibility for the problem and its solution. Out of a personal sense of responsibility comes a commitment to solve it.
Useful questions for exploring the “gap” include the following:
- “How do you think things are going?”
- “How did you think the “y” project went?”
- “How did you approach that problem?”
- “In retrospect, how did you feel about...?”
- “How well do you think the team’s working together at the moment?”
- “How do you think things have progressed since our last discussion?”
The following may be useful approaches to get the individual to consider the effects of his/her approach on others:
- “How do you think others see you?”
- “How do you think Dave may have reacted to that?”
- “Can you appreciate why John may have been upset?”
- “Why do you think he replied to you like that?”
- “Is that reaction typical in your experience?”
- “Why do you think I might be raising this with you?”
- “What would you think if you were in my position?”
- “Can you appreciate why I might be concerned?”
If you have provided feedback, you need to get a response to it:
- “What’s your reaction to that feedback?”
- “When does this problem seem to arise?”
- “How do you feel about what I’ve said?”
- “Do you agree?”
- “Can you appreciate my point?”
Eliminating the Gap
This is about the individual’s commitment to a plan of action which will rectify the problem. Action planning is not a question of your announcing and imposing a ready-made set of solutions. Your interview technique should aim to bring about ‘willing co-operation’.
Once you have reached agreement on the existence of a problem, through questions and feedback, the action planning process involves exploring possible solutions, evaluating them and establishing specific goals with an appropriate monitoring process.
The following questions may be helpful:
- “Where do you think we need to go from here?”
- “How do you think we can address this problem?”
- “What ideas do you have?”
- “What alternatives do you think we have?”
- “What changes do you think you could make?”
- “What do you think you might have done/said instead?”
Encourage the interviewee to evaluate his/her ideas:
- “How would you go about doing that?”
- “How would that work in practice?”
- “What sort of obstacles might there be to....?”
- “What resources do you think we’d need?”
- “What sort of timescales are we talking about?”
- “How soon do you think we could do that?”
- “Who would you need to clear that with?”
- “What support do you need from me?”
Support from you may be additional training or coaching, or other actions to address specific problems. You must be seen to act and provide the support required.
Once you have got the individual’s commitment, pin him/her down to specifics. If you leave things too vague they may be unsure about what is expected and it will make any follow-up action all the more difficult.
- “Perhaps you could summarise what we’ve agreed?”
- “So, you agree that in future you’ll....”
- “When shall we get together to review what we’ve discussed?”
- “How long do you think you’ll need to.....?”
- “We’ll make a diary note for....”
Sometimes it will be appropriate to allow some time for the agreed improvement to take place. This may apply to some performance problems (e.g. a failure to meet targets or quality standards) where a training need has been identified.
Other issues may demand a more immediate solution, for example poor timekeeping. It will depend on the nature of the problem.
Remember that the solution needs to be acceptable to you on behalf of the company. Ideally it will also be acceptable to the employee, but there will be occasions on which you need to make a decision which may not be to the employee’s liking.
Your decision should be fair and reasonable given all of the circumstances, and you should explain your reasons to the employee.
Having gathered more information and listened to the individual’s side of the story, you may feel that you need to take advice before going any further. It is quite acceptable to adjourn the meeting, advising him/her that you will come back once you have given the matter some more thought.
Once you have arrived at a specific solution you mustL
- Document the discussion for your own records – this should include a note of the date of the discussion, a summary of what was discussed and the actions agreed.
- Diary any agreed review dates.
- Monitor progress.
- Take action where necessary and follow up at precisely the agreed time to demonstrate your commitment to the performance improvement process.
If the employee does improve conduct or performance as required, reinforce the improvement by giving positive feedback and praise.