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Deal with underperformance.

April 12th, 2013

Over the years I was a supervisor and manager in a large public sector organisation I observed ( and may well have been guilty of ), failure to deal with underperformance.  However, I can also confidently state that I have successfully dealt with individuals that have not delivered or failed to comply with direction.

Underperformance can mean many things, tardiness, untidy appearance, failure to meet deadlines, delivering poor quality service, the list of potential issues is vast and I cannot cover them all in this blog.  Needless to say, I know you get the idea.

What happens if you fail to deal with underperformance?

There are many reasons that you must deal with people that are not performing, below are two very pertinent examples:

  • Firstly, it undermines your authority as a manager in the eyes of your peers and your own boss.  “How can we expect X to manage a department or team when they cannot manage individual Y?”  The fact that you are having difficulty in managing an individual’s performance when everything else is running smoothly in your area of business can provide a distorted view of your ability as a manager.  You may know it is just one individual that you are having difficulty with, but this may not be the view of others!
  • Secondly, the other members of the team that work with the underperformer will lose faith in you whilst resentment builds against the individual that is underperforming.  This resentment is caused by the fact that those that are working hard and are meeting or exceeding expectations can see the individual doing less work, performing less well, or just plain being lazy, is getting away with it.

As can bee seen, if you do not deal with underperformance it can not only undermine your authority in both the eyes of your peers or your supervisor, but it can lead to loss of faith in you by your people.  The latter can also lead to others feeling that they can underperform, after all why should they work hard when others fail to do so?  In essence, if you do not deal with underperformance, can spread like an infection.

How to deal with underperformance

In my experience, the best way to deal with underperformance is by being both firm and fair.  It is essential that you are firm with the issue at hand as this will send a message to the individual concerned as well as those around you.  It is also critical for various reasons that you ensure you are fair.  Following internal organisational policy and complying with relevant legislation ensure no legal or paralegal challenges can be made to your actions but it is equally important to be fair for the sake of the future working relationship!

I have dealt with individuals both formally and informally for work related performance issues and on all occasions have maintained a professional but cordial working relationship after the matter has been dealt with.

This successful management of underperformance issues is as a result of ensuring the individual is dealt with fairly.  I cannot stress this enough.  If you deal with underperformance in a fair manner then you are less likely to create further problems for yourself and organisation.

This topic also gives me the opportunity to reintroduce values based leadership, as how you deal with the matter at hand may have a wealth of options associated with it.  Using the most appropriate method of dealing with the matter will involve making a decision.  You can read further about the values based leadership and associated decision making model here.

Decision Making

Sometimes it can be useful to discuss the issue and your proposed outcome with any staff association that you may be dealing with.  This, of course, must be done confidentially and anonymously.  The benefits of this discussion are that you can be forearmed with any views that the staff association have on the subject and this may assist you in deciding which course of action to take.

Once you have selected the method with which you will deal with the issue you must then bite the bullet and speak with the individual concerned.  I would never ambush an individual that you are managing for underperformance, this is unfair and immediately could lead to the individual becoming very defensive and entrenched.  Be open! Let the person know why they are coming to see you and even let them know it is OK to bring a friend if they want to.  Remember, if you have already consulted the staff association you will know their position.

When you meet up, I have always found it beneficial to follow a standard format after introductions (where needed):

  1. Explain the area of underperformance and set the context (is it repeat behaviour)
  2. Explain why it is unacceptable.
  3. Provide the evidence.
  4. Investigate causes (after all there may be welfare issues that you were unaware of)
  5. Propose course of action (which may be modified as information at 4 may lead you to change your view)
  6. Set review date.

The course of action could be selected from internal disciplinary procedures or may be of an informal nature, but the critical aspect of the decision you take is that you do the right thing based on your organisation’s values.

Sometimes you are dealing with repeat offenders and on other occasions you are dealing with people that have perhaps failed to meet standards for the first time.  For this latter group it is especially important that you set the context of the matter.  It is vital that the individual knows what they have done is not acceptable but it is also equally important that they know that you appreciate all of the times that they have met or even exceeded expectations.  It is this acknowledgement that allows people to accept that they have had to meet with you.  The individual will know that whilst normally they perform extremely well, on this occasion they have failed to meet the required standards.  This is a key factor in maintaining a good working relationship.

A common result of dealing with underperformance is the development plan and I shall discuss these in depth in a future blog post.  But for now, remember that the development plan has to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.  It is also important to remember that you and the organisation have a responsibility to help the individual succeed and not sabotage them.  Any development plan should also include how you are going to help the individual succeed.  Herriot Watt University have a useful pdf file explaining how to write a SMART action plan.  This can be viewed HERE.

If you follow the above as a suggested model for dealing with underperformance then you should be able to improve performance, increase confidence and maintain good working relationships with all.

Performance Works can provide training and coaching in many areas of leadership.  If you wish to view our training capability then please view it here.




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