Handling Performance Issues

Poor performance doesn’t just happen. There’s always an underlying cause. Most commonly, it’s due to a lack of motivation, ability, or personal reasons.

Addressing poor performance is one of the most delicate and impactful conversations you’re likely to have as a leader. Although confrontation can be uncomfortable, it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you send a message to others that the behavior is acceptable.

How do you handle performance issues in your organization?

Here’s a scenario: Daniel has worked at Happy Clients for two years. And, during this period, he’s been a tremendous asset to the team. In the past few weeks, you have observed that he has not been performing up to standards and have been late to work on several occasions. Based on the latest monthly report, Daniel is also falling short of his production goals. Team members are increasingly complaining about his cranky attitude, and he has just shown up late for work again. It’s now time for a performance meeting.

How can you prepare for the meeting to help regain Daniel’s productivity and performance in a way that is respectful and encouraging?

Here is a 10-step approach to fixing performance problems:

1. Schedule a meeting. Send a calendar invite at least three days before the meeting. Include an agenda with the invitation. This provides employees sufficient time to prepare for the meeting.

  • Tip: Consider giving employees a heads up that you will be sending a meeting invite to discuss their performance. An out of the blue performance conversation may catch them off guard.

2. Start positive. Begin the conversation by providing positive feedback to create a more comfortable and relaxed setting. Motivate with encouraging words and avoid any mention of underperformance at this stage. Emotional confrontation helps nobody.

  • Tip: Try to provide as much positive feedback as possible. This helps to create balance when providing critical feedback later in the conversation.

3. Ask for a self-assessment. Ask if they agree with your evaluation and encourage them to rate their performance. Chances are, they’ll agree with your positive feedback during this self-assessment. This helps them see things more objectively, which is a step towards acknowledging underperformance. Above all, this invites them to raise any difficulties they may be having themselves, instead of you bringing it up.

  • Tip: There is a natural tendency for people to defend themselves as soon as they feel attacked. Highlight the positive aspects of their work so they see that they are valued.

4. Address the performance issue. If they’ve acknowledged their underperformance, encourage them to shed light on its causes. If they haven’t, you will need to set the stage. Start by mentioning a few observations and then let them tell their side of the story.

  • Tip: Let them do most of the talking at this stage and refrain from presenting your assumptions.

5. Keep it professional. The subject of the conversation should be about performance and behavior, not about the person. Voice any disappointment objectively. Avoid pointing out character flaws and placing blame. Otherwise, they could see this as a personal attack.

  • Tip: Maintain objectivity and do not stray into personal territory. If personal issues come up as a reason for their underperformance, gently prod to see if they want to reveal more.

6. Focus on the facts. When addressing their underperformance, articulate yourself clearly with concrete examples and proof. Come prepared with notes or reports that demonstrate their underperformance.

  • Tip: If the issue is goals-related, have the figures ready. If they are not complying with company policy, have the guidelines on hand.

7. Paint the bigger picture. Employees may not always realize how their performance can negatively impact their team or the organization. Draw the connection. Reestablish the organization’s mission, vision, and values and how their performance helps achieve this.

  • Tip: Establish the reasons for the performance meeting, why the performance is unacceptable, and what needs to be improved.

8. Respond to reasons given. Resistance in such conversations is not uncommon. Here are some possible scenarios and how to tackle them.

  • They disagree with your views. Take a step back and remain firm in your view. Schedule a follow-up meeting in a few days to give them time to think it over and get on the same page.
  • They blow off your observations with excuses. Get them to identify the external factors that are keeping them from performing and ask if they’ll be able to perform better with these factors out of the way.
  • They defend their performance with peer-comparison. If they justify their performance by comparing themselves with others and insist they’re not doing that badly, ask them to obtain quality feedback from internal/external clients and discuss them in the next session.

9. Establish next steps. Once they acknowledge they’ve been underperforming and agree with your assessment, establish a plan for change. Ask them to identify areas where there’s room for improvement and how they aim to achieve that. Highlight that the purpose of the meeting is to find solutions, and ask how you can support them to get back on track.

  • Tip: Set concrete goals and expectations for the future. Your final agreement should leave no room for misinterpretation. Don’t be disappointed if the solutions they suggest aren’t precise enough as they may need more time to reflect. Ask questions to prompt more concrete answers.

10. Chart the progress. Fixing performance problems isn’t a one-off event. One meeting may not be sufficient to diagnose the issue, let alone remedy it, so schedule a follow-up meeting to monitor progress. This also gives them time to reflect on the conversation and return to the next session with more insight. This is all part of the performance recovery process.

  • Tip: Throughout this process, encourage them, acknowledge any improvement, and congratulate them on their progress.

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