Managing underperformance is one of management’s perennial challenges—and one that’s tempting to overlook. The team member is often amiable, dependable, and cooperative, and rarely bends or breaks the rules. They just don’t get the results we need.
“Nice” management in no way means ignoring underperformance. If we do, we mislead the team member into thinking they’re doing OK and deprive them of the opportunity to make needed improvements. Worse, we frustrate other team members by holding back the team’s results and lowering its standards. And we are remiss in our responsibilities to our organizations to get results.
Underperformance must be addressed, and the only appropriate way is directly with the employee, in a private one-on-one meeting.
Most poor performers recognize their shortcomings but asking is a good way to open the conversation and test their awareness of expectations.
After six months on the job, Dan has fallen behind entering orders. Mike invites him to his office to talk.
M: Dan, how’re you doing with the orders?
D: OK, I think.
M: How current are you?
D: Probably within a few days.
M: What are the standards we’re trying to stay within?
D: I remember you and Sam told me it needs to be current daily. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten a little behind on that lately.
Dan confirms he’s aware of the expectations and knows he’s not meeting them.
Now they need to identify the cause.
M: What do you feel is holding you back?
D: Well, I’ve just been busy with other things.
M: I see. Do you feel you have too many responsibilities?
D: Not really; I can handle them.
M: Which do you feel is most important?
D: Well, this one is.
M: What do you think the problem has been?
D: I guess I just haven’t focused on it.
Dan’s analysis seems correct, so Mike asks for a plan to address the problem.
M: OK, I understand. What do you need to do to fix it?
D: I guess I just need to make the orders my priority, do them first, and not get distracted by other things until they’re done.
M: Makes sense. Do you think you can do that?
D: Yes, I’ll do it.
M: Is there anything you need?
D: I don’t think so.
The solution most likely to be executed is usually the one the team member comes up with. Mike feels Dan’s solution is reasonable, so he goes along with it.
M: OK. I’ll check with you each day until you get caught up.
D: I can probably be caught up by Thursday.
M: That would be great. This is important to our team, Dan. We’re counting on you. Thanks for taking it seriously.
Follow-up serves as a reminder to the team member and allows us to confirm the poor performance has been fixed.
In some cases, calling the team member’s attention to the problem, asking for a plan to take care of it, and following up is enough to resolve underperformance issues.
However, performance problems that appear once often recur. When they do, we need to spot and address them quickly, before they become habit.
Dan has fallen behind again. Mike invites him to his office.
M: How are you doing with the orders, Dan?
D: I was doing fine, but I’ve gotten a little behind again.
Mike asks, both to understand Dan’s perspective, and in case there’s a problem Mike isn’t aware of.
M: I see. What happened?
D: Well, I just got busy with other things.
M: What things are interrupting you?
D: Just my other responsibilities—but I understand the orders are supposed to be my priority.
The cause hasn’t changed, and Mike confirms Dan is aware of it.
Since this is the second occurrence, Mike adds emphasis by explaining the problems it causes.
M: When the orders aren’t entered daily, we can’t tell what we’ve sold, what we need, and how we’re doing. That can cause us to make some expensive mistakes.
D: I understand.
Then they need a plan.
M: What do you think you need to do to keep them up?
D I just need to focus on it and not allow myself to be interrupted.
M: OK. Is there anything you need from me?
D: No, I think I have everything.
Mike schedules follow-up.
M: OK. Please let me know how you’re doing each day until you’re caught up. After that, I’d like you to email me every Tuesday and Friday morning with the status.
D: OK, I’ll do that.
Having the team member initiate feedback encourages them to make progress before reporting. (Mike makes a note on his to-do list in case Dan forgets to follow through.)
And finally, some encouragement.
M: You can do this, Dan. I picked you for this team and I want you to succeed. We’re all counting on you.
Typically, Dan won’t want to disappoint Mike or the team, and will try to meet expectations.
Some people, however, won’t be able to live up to the expectations. The problem isn’t bad intentions; most mean to please. Often the task just isn’t in their nature—it’s not their personality.
Personalities are part of a person’s core definition and have a powerful influence on the work they do. People can temporarily make themselves do work they’re not suited for, but their personalities pull them back like tempered steel to their natural inclinations—and underperformance.
To illustrate, an accountant who is a “born salesman” is almost too odd to imagine; meanwhile, the paperwork of any good salesman is enough to drive an accountant to drink. They’re different personalities. With some effort, both can learn the basic skills of the other. But the salesman will quickly tire of numbers and be drawn to people, while the accountant will quickly tire of people and take refuge in the numbers. In the wrong job, both will tire quickly, become distracted easily, struggle, and be unhappy. In the right job, they’ll be productive, valuable, successful, and happy.
Not being suited for one job doesn’t mean a team member isn’t suited for any work. There’s appropriate work for every personality. Job satisfaction, work quality, and general happiness depend on finding it.
In the spirit of open communication and fairness, we should discuss a possible work mismatch with an underperforming team member. Often it will prompt them to consider more appropriate and satisfying work. Occasionally we can help them find a better match within our team or the company.
If their mind is set on their current job, the discussion will at least allow them to think about the changes they need to make to do the job appropriately. It also ensures that, if we have to take them off the team, it won’t seem an unfair surprise.
Dan has fallen behind for the third time in six months.
Mike asks him to join him in his office.
M: Dan, do I understand correctly that you’re behind with orders again?
D: Just a little. I can catch up quickly.
M: How far behind are you?
D: Maybe a couple of days.
M: Can you check on that and give me an exact time?
D: Well, I’m caught up through last Monday.
M: So, you’re four days behind?
D: Yes, I think so.
Dan knows the expectations and seems reluctant to admit he’s not meeting them.
M: Is there something that’s keeping you from staying current?
D: Not really. I just got busy with other things. I’m sorry.
By now Mike suspects Dan’s failure to prioritize correctly is due to Dan preferring other activities to this one.
M: Dan, you’re a smart guy but it seems to me your heart isn’t in this. Have you thought about whether this is the right kind of work for you?
Raising the idea that a team member might not be suited for a job seems awkward, but Mike’s question is honest and meant to be helpful. Preceding it with a compliment makes it less difficult.
D: What do you mean? I can do it.
M: I know you’re capable, Dan. But perhaps these tasks aren’t things you like doing. If so, that doesn’t reflect poorly on you. Each of us is suited to different kinds of work. When we find what’s right for us, we’re happier and do it better.
D: I’ve got to work, Mike. And I’ve always been able to do whatever I put my mind to.
The idea of a job-personality mismatch comes as a surprise to many people—they’ve never thought about it.
M: I understand, and you can do this, too, when you focus on it. But that doesn’t mean you enjoy doing it. Having trouble getting started and staying on task is often a sign that the work isn’t a good match.
D: What else would I do?
M: That usually takes some thought. Career counselors specialize in helping people find the right work. If you like, I can.... [help you find a counselor, arrange an appointment for you, have the company provide that for you]. Once we’ve found what kind of work suits you, maybe I can help you find it.
Sometimes there’s suitable work for an underperforming employee within our team or the company. In the right role, they sometimes become skilled and valuable long-term employees.
However, we should ensure that the new job is really a fit and something they will do well, and not just an easy method to move them out of the way or off our teams. Putting them where poor performance is less noticeable is not a fix for us or for them, and transferring the problem to someone else is not managing underperformance—it's bad karma that’s rarely left unpaid.
It can take some time for a team member...