Tackling a Poor Performer- Avoidance Might Be Natural, But Is It Fair?

Dealing with poor performance is one of the hardest things to do. Common deterrents include fear of conflict and concerns that we may be perceived as nit picking. It is made particularly hard where we have developed a friendship with the poor performing staff member. We are torn between our role as a friend and our role as a manager, so procrastinate while we struggle with our own conflict. Deeper still, we become concerned that we ourselves are not perfect, so begin to question our right to discuss a performance issue with another employee. Not to mention how a poor performance meeting gone wrong might cast a shadow over our own performance and future career.

Sound familiar? Let’s examine more closely a typical situation.

You have an employee that has been performing reasonably well but an area of under performance becomes evident over time. You decide to address this issue in a round about way through occasional indirect conversations with the individual and the broader team. Well done for trying, but when dealing with poor performance this indirect approach usually doesn’t work.

Weeks and months pass by and now you feel that after this rather lengthy time of ongoing poor performance, it would be unfair to address the issue. You decide not to proceed with a direct discussion. On the outside you feel you can justify this decision but inside you are uneasy.

You continue in your management role with a sense of unease. Your team wonders if you have noticed anything. They start complaining about their colleague and begin to lose respect for you as a manager. Your poor performer continues their role, most likely aware that there is a side of their work that they are not up to speed with but unsure how to mention it. They are keen to preserve their job, and fear negative consequences of addressing the issue. Every week they wonder if they will be confronted and although fearful, know it would be a relief to receive some coaching and support to improve their performance.

You begin to personally dislike the poor performer. They are causing you so much angst and you cannot understand why they just cannot do their job properly. Your negative feelings may even start to spill over into your conversations with others. Trust in your management skills is waning fast. Trust between you and the poor performing employee has long gone, along with any hope of working effectively together.

In the 2009/2010 State of the Service Report, 56% of employees reported that their manager did not deal appropriately with staff who perform poorly. I pose the question: Is it fair when managers avoid dealing with poor performers? Let’s look at who suffers as a result.

  • Taxpayers or shareholders; wouldn’t they rather see their dollars invested in services or wealth creation rather than poor performing employees?
  • The organisation; it makes an enormous investment into its management. Doesn’t it have the right to expect that its managers accept the responsibility to deal appropriately with poor performers?
  • The manager themselves; wouldn’t the inability to tackle poor performance lead to a lack of self confidence, a poor reputation, an under performing team and ultimately an inability to manage effectively?
  • High performing team members; wouldn’t they see their poor performing colleagues bringing down the whole team? The best will probably choose to leave the organisation. Others will stay but with substantially reduced job satisfaction.
  • The poor performer’s clients; don’t they deserve a certain level of service? So is it fair that they are recipients of a substandard delivery?

And finally, is it fair on the poor performer themselves? Their manager dislikes them, their colleagues are talking negatively about them, they are not receiving the support they need and their chances of promotion are ruined. All because you as their manager chose not to directly confront a poor performance issue.

We need to recognise that our feelings of fear and concern are normal and allow them to surface before tackling a poor performance issue. Find time for a meaningful discussion with your manager, or seek out a mentor who can provide non-judgemental support. Begin to think clearly, with the longer term implications in mind, and tackle the issue of poor performance directly as it occurs. It’s only fair.

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