Managing poor performance – identifying the issues

At some point in their careers, every manager will have to tackle the issue of poor performance. This is a challenging issue, particularly for people in their first managerial role, so we asked 3 of our HR expert coaches to give us their views.

Marg Lennon has a strong Senior Executive Human Resources background in the Pharmaceutical and Medical Device industries, having spent many years in Australian, Asia Pacific and Global roles.

Trish Kelly was the General Manager Human Resources for 8 years in the NSW Department of Education and Communities, then the largest organisation in the southern hemisphere.

Paula Liverani-Brooks is a Human Resources leader in multinational organisations ranging from Bio-Tech to Consumer Goods and Financial institutions.

We asked them:

  • how managers can identify poor performance and its causes
  • where the responsibility lies
  • how managers can address poor performance and where to start
  • whether there are any traps to look out for.

Over the next weeks, we will share their answers and reflections. We begin our series with Marg Lennon, who says:

Marg Lennon, Executive Coach
Marg Lennon, Executive Coach

Every manager will experience the need to improve an employee’s performance at some stage in their managerial life. Every employee deserves effective feedback on how they are doing with a view to improving their performance, and it is the manager’s job to provide that feedback. Sometimes the person is shocked to find out they are not doing as well as they thought, as no one had told them previously.

The first question to ask is just what exactly is poor performance. Are you talking about the employee’s specialist and technical skills as described in their job description? Or do you really mean that their behaviour and attitude do not align with that of the organisation?

Once you’re clear about what type of performance issue you’re addressing, it’s useful to take a step back and consider other factors that may be affecting the employee in their work environment. Some questions to ponder:

  • How long has this been going on?
  • Is the employee really clear on their tasks, timelines, quality of work and your expectations? (Often managers think they have communicated in a concise fashion, but the employee can hear and act differently from expectations).
  • Have you delegated the tasks well and not micromanaged the situation?
  • Are the timelines realistic?
  • Have you noticed any change recently?

The next step, when you feel you may have grasped the broader picture, is to have a discussion with the employee to discover what the cause of this situation might be. Initially this discussion is a discovery one: you want to know what’s going on for this person that may be affecting their work.

Responding to the issues you have uncovered, you could find solutions in technical or skills training or mentoring from another more skilled employee on a specific task. You still need to restate your expectations and standards and this could include providing examples of similar work, if possible. It’s important the employee knows exactly what you require from them, so they can understand the performance standards required and you can look for further improvements.

If the performance relates to a behavioural issue, then it’s important to give clear examples of the poor behaviour and the improvements you expect to see. The employee needs to know specifically in which areas you are looking for improvement.

Conclude the meeting with a summary of what outcomes is required and the timelines, along with a scheduled follow up meeting. Ensure the employee shows they have understood your expectations by being able to verbally express what they think you said and the areas in which you are expecting to see an improvement.

It is essential to monitor the ongoing performance and to meet with your employee again after a short period. They need a chance to improve, so don’t expect miracles overnight.

Contributor: Marg Lennon provides coaching, mentoring and leadership development consultancy services to clients across a variety of industries. Marg is available in Sydney, Canberra and by Facetime anywhere.

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