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.

Now that you’ve hired your talent, what happens next?

Last week we looked at an interesting case study, where Unilever had taken a novel approach to diversify its candidate pool for entry level positions, by automating most stages of the recruitment process.

We discussed:

  • what consequences this approach may have for diversity in hiring, and
  • that a conscious effort to identify and encode desired characteristics has potential to help organisations understand their own culture.
Executive Coach Exchange leader pixabay PaulLeng
How important is it to understand organisational culture when recruiting a leader?

This issue of understanding an organisation’s own culture is highlighted in this thought-provoking article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Clarke Murphy.

The authors highlight the difficulty that organisations have in recruiting and promoting effective leaders, and link this to the difficulty that organisations have in identifying the most important features of their own culture.

This leads to a situation where even those organisations that have a good recruitment strategy – not relying too much on intuition over more valid selection tools – fail to look at whether their candidate’s qualities and skills are a good match for their organisation’s culture.  “As a result, too many leaders are (correctly) hired on talent but subsequently fired due to poor culture fit,” Chamorro-Premuzic and Murphy say.

The authors make the point – and we think this is a vitally important consideration in any effort to recruit a new leader – that “for most people, leadership potential will be somewhat context-dependent”.

A person who has outperformed in a previous role, with:

  • familiar structures,
  • a support framework, and
  • a clear understanding, built over time, of the organisation’s goals,

may easily flounder – in fact, could almost be expected to flounder – in a new and unfamiliar organisation.

If this leader has been recruited to undertake transformation in the new organisation, the task is doubly hard.

The authors identify 3 key areas where more work needs to be done in the hiring process to avoid the disruption and inefficiencies involved in repeated hiring and firing:

  • understand the organisation’s own culture;
  • decode the motives and values of their candidate to see whether these are a good fit for the organisational culture; and
  • where this is a desired outcome – be realistic about whether a new leader can change the organisational culture.

The authors recognise the difficulty that a new leader will have in reshaping organisational culture, and that, potentially, only a “moderate misfit” will have the time, inclination and personal attributes to do so.

The authors suggest objective measurement, including via well-structured climate surveys and crowdsourcing ideas from team members, to help organisations understand their own culture first.  This approach puts organisations in a strong position of self-knowledge, before either recruiting or beginning the transformation process.



Bosses behaving badly

A client recently sent us a study from the University of NSW by Chris Jackson and Michael Collins which shows a link between “emotional self-regulation (and) a capacity to maintain attention”. In this study, the researchers put candidates in high stakes, stressful situations to measure how they responded.

Executive Coach Exchange bosses behaving badly pheee pixabayThey found, “Some people have a higher sensitivity in the ability of the brain to switch out fear when faced with a threat – (such as) …delivering bad news to the board – and some get caught up in that threat. They entertain anxieties, fear and anger, and ruminate on them and, as they’re churning through those thoughts, they have less capacity left to solve problems.”

The researchers discuss hiring the right people in the first place, by selecting people with the internal resources to manage effectively in times of disruption. They also make a point which will resonate with many people.

“Organisations need to understand they cannot pile the pressure on people more than they can actually deal with or things will go wrong. It leads to an abusive environment in which staff leave or litigate or generally become demotivated,” said Jackson.

We felt two findings had the most relevance for executive coaches and their clients.

The first is that frequently bosses are not aware they are behaving badly. “After working with executives over the years, I’ve found they’re often totally surprised that people would see them as bullying and harassing…,” Collins said.

The second is that, while you can’t grow your natural ‘attention resource capacity’, you can learn to use your limited resources more effectively.

“…practising mindfulness and cognitive behaviour strategies may reduce emotional overload, along with coaching or workshops to help leaders understand the relationship between how they perceive a situation, their thinking style, and how that influences strong negative emotions. The next step is learning self-regulation strategies to reduce the intensity of their emotions so they react more appropriately to difficult situations.”

Executive coaches can help you develop awareness about your own behaviours. They can assist you by bringing an objective perspective to your circumstances and help you build more effective responses to stressful situations.

Executive coach recommends exercise to help executives step up their leadership

Executive Coach Exchange exerciseWhat if there were an effective way to boost your brainpower, giving you better cognitive function and enhancing your memory? What if there were a simple way to increase perception, attention and motivation? Most leaders would jump at the chance. But when we coach executives with highly demanding jobs, they frequently tell us they simply don’t have time to exercise.

In this article, Christine Comaford outlines the case for making exercise a non-negotiable part of your routine, citing a series of scientific studies.

She explains that exercise facilitates higher level thinking skills, which enable executives “to increase their focus, increase their cognitive flexibility and think faster.”

Perhaps it’s time leaders applied a cost/benefit analysis and asked themselves, can you afford not to exercise?