One of the harder aspects of leadership is effectively dealing with poor performance.
It might be that a team member is:
- Not pulling their weight
- Not meeting deadlines
- Creating conflict or involved in conflict with someone else
- Chronically late or absent
- Not meeting sales targets
- And the list goes on…
As a leadership coach, I hear how difficult this is for some clients. Let’s face it, it can be really awkward to figure out how to have a performance conversation with someone who is underperforming. And sometimes we know to brace ourselves because that conversation is just not going to go over well to start.
Many leaders really only deal with poor performance at the annual performance review – and even then, how many of you know poor performers who left performance reviews thinking they were doing just fine?!
Some folks put off having a serious conversation about poor performance until things are at the breaking point.
But what if, instead of REACTING to poor performance, we as leaders could CATCH IT EARLY or even PREVENT it from happening in the first place?
Think of poor performance as a fire. If you let it burn, it will spread. If you extinguish a fire quickly, you can minimize damage (in contrast with waiting and hoping for the flames to burn out and then finding the entire building or block is on fire).
A sub-performing member of your team has an effect on everyone. It’s also not really fair to let someone on your team blunder along until things are out of control or beyond an easy fix.
It’s far better to intercede early than to wait and hope for the best.
PRO TIP: If you understand personality styles (we like to use the Everything DiSC model), then you can figure out how to approach a problem in a way that the person will listen and be motivated to improve.
Take time to consider root causes
Before you talk to a team member about poor performance, you need to consider why they are having trouble. How you approach someone can vary depending on whether performance is caused by:
- Illness or a personal issue
- An inability to do the work (this could be that the team member has a knowledge gap and needs training or mentorship, lacks resources or that the task is beyond their ability)
- Having no motivation or a poor attitude (maybe considers the task beneath them or outside their scope of practice)
If you can figure out what the cause of the poor performance is and HELP THE EMPLOYEE ADDRESS IT, you can turn a bad situation into a good one. Not only that, but you’ll develop an employee who is a real asset and most likely a loyal supporter of you as a leader.
Check your anger, disappointment or frustration at the door
Depending on the circumstances, it might be difficult to try to understand what’s happening for someone who is performing poorly. We recommend approaching any situation like this with an empathetic approach.
Why empathy? Because research into workplace relationships shows that employees feel leaders who are warm and understanding are much more effective than those who demonstrate anger or other negative emotions. Empathy builds trust, and trust is the cornerstone of a high performing and successful team.
This does not mean you can’t feel negative emotions, nor does it mean you have to plaster on a smile when faced with a challenging situation. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know we recently talked about how to manage anger and frustration in a way that’s helpful to your team.
If this is the nth time a problem with poor performance has occurred, and you’ve used this strategy of being empathetic thoroughly, then perhaps it’s time for a different approach.
In his article The Focused Leader for the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman discussed three types of empathy that relate directly to leadership:
- Cognitive Empathy: The ability to understand a different perspective from your own and being curious enough to find out more about a different point of view.
- Emotional Empathy: The ability to not only read and recognize other people’s emotions but relate to them and feel it, too.
- Empathetic Concern: This is the ability to move beyond emotional empathy and sense what other people need from you.
As leaders, it helps to know when to be empathetic, caring and focused on improving things for the employee so they improve things for the organization (and themselves).
Being able to do this without blinders on means knowing when to move from Cognitive Empathy (understanding the poor performer’s perspective) and demonstrating Emotional Empathy (really relating to them) to Empathetic Concern (knowing how to approach the situation to move things forward).
There are myriad examples of when having a leader who could have gotten really angry or punitive instead reacts with empathy and helps a team member solve a poor performance issue.
One that I remember hearing is a high-level manager in health care who was trying to stay on top of deadlines but was missing several days of work. She got the dreaded call to see her director for a conversation.
Instead of the director pouncing on the deficiencies, she asked what was wrong. She knew this was out of character and asked what was happening. The manager, who had been trying to carry on as if everything was fine, shared that she was juggling work and a senior parent with a cancer diagnosis.
This was a good 20 years ago, before we had such agile technological solutions, but the director and the manager were able to figure out a way for her to do some work remotely and flex her time so that she could take her ailing parent to treatment and meet her work commitments.
Sometimes, meeting folks with compassion and understanding makes room for honest conversations and the opportunity to work together on solutions.
Often, team members who are struggling know that they are not performing well. Some leaders will be inclined to think the employee is lazy, incapable or freeloading off their peers. However, they’re more likely embarrassed, stressed, hoping no one says anything or reluctant to ask for help. They will never forget the leader who approaches them with understanding and empathy – and offers the tools, resources or coaching to improve the situation.
Tough guy or compassion for the win?
While there are high profile leaders who liken being tough to being successful, research shows the opposite is true.
In 2016, Development Dimensions International (DDI) released their findings from a global study conducted over 10 years. They analyzed real behaviors and performance results of more than 15,000 leaders from 300 companies around the globe.
DDI reported that leaders who listen and respond with empathy rate 40% higher in:
- Overall performance
- Coaching others
- Engaging others
- Planning and organizing
When you use empathy to approach a team member about poor performance, it’s helpful to define responsibilities and expectations for their role, mapped against both company goals and their own personal goals.
We like to use the DiSC Management profile to help figure out employee motivators, so you can adapt your approach. Motivators are another aspect to consider and the employee might not even be able to articulate what motivates them, so learning to read body language, watch where they are comfortable and happy, etcetera, can go a long way.
This approach will earn not only their trust and loyalty, but you’ll have their buy-in. It’s a win-win because you’ll know what to expect and how to support their weak areas and they will feel valued and supported.
Five tactics for avoiding poor performance
In addition to having emotionally intelligent, empathetic performance conversations, you can help your team members avoid poor performance by:
- Scheduling regular one-to-one check-ins. This might take a bit more time to start, but it often pays off later. Be prepared to really listen and talk about how they’re doing, what they’re doing and if there are any issues. If you sense trouble, be prepared to help the team member clarify expectations and responsibilities and identify ways their work could be supported.
- Not swooping in with solutions. Listen, be a sounding board and ask the team member to brainstorm solutions. What do they think they need to accomplish something? This will help you determine whether someone is motivated to improve and it gives your team member the opportunity to grow and stretch. Follow-up to see how things are progressing in case you do need to offer more help.
- Identifying smaller steps. When you want to help someone perform better consider whether the goal needs to be broken down into smaller goals and/or whether it would help to have milestones attached to a timeline. Often, having work expectations set out in a more manageable way helps a team member turn around their performance (especially if they are dealing with outside stressors such as health problems or family issues). Again, don’t do all the work. Involve the team member in breaking things down, identifying priorities and setting goals they can reach successfully.
- Watching for success. Celebrate when you see things on the upswing by thanking them for their hard work and perseverance. Note what they’re doing well so they feel appreciated, supported and motivated to keep improving. Are they asking for help when needed? Do they need continued supports or skills development?
- In time, evaluating how things have gone. After a few months, is this employee on a new trajectory? Or are you finding the same issues are coming up again and again? There are times that despite all your best efforts – and all their best efforts – things are not any better. If it really isn’t working, it’s time to move to an Essential Conversation before, if necessary, moving to formal disciplinary actions.
Was there ever a time that you were met with empathy and compassion – or were not – when you were struggling? In hindsight, can you think of times when as a leader you could have used more empathy to address poor performance? What can you start doing now to avoid poor performance from your team?