Managing Low Performers

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It’s annual performance review time, and even though for most people this is a smooth and straightforward process, from time to time managers need to deal with some not so pleasant situations. Managing low performers is all but straightforward, so keep reading for some tips on how to deal with it and start the year off on the right foot.

Performance matters all the time

Even though most places have a formal performance review once or twice a year, you should keep an eye on performance all the time. Use your 1:1s to get an insight on problems or misalignments. Look for red flags and be proactive. Don’t wait until the problem is too big, the sooner you address it, the easiest and fastest the solution will be.

Data, data and data

How do we know someone is not performing well? We are dealing with a delicate matter here, so we can’t base our actions on a hunch or on someone’s comment out of the blue. We need to gather data, and we need to do it all year round.

Ask your employees for regular self-assessments, use measurable performance metrics when possible (e.g. number of project iterations completed successfully) and use 360° feedback. It’s important to keep notes of any relevant fact, achievement or complaint that has happened throughout the year. A single comment should be taken with a pinch of salt, but if you see a pattern, or similar comments coming from different sources, that might be a cue to action.

However, don’t fall into the trap of trying to measure every single thing. Not all metrics are equally valuable. Some of them might even be harmful.

Take as an example measuring lines of code, in the context of a team of developers. If you use this as a metric, developers will tend to write verbose code when not necessary, just to perform well according to the (wrong) metric.

Another example, if you are using an issue tracking system for instance, when the number of closed tickets is your main metric, your employees will complete the smallest and easiest tickets first, leaving other most complex tasks unattended.

Sometimes the solution is to combine multiple metrics or refine the criteria. In the previous example, if instead of just counting the number of tickets, there was a way to objectively add complexity or business value to the mix, then you can reinforce other behaviours that are more beneficial for the company, the team and ultimately the employee.

Improve your feedback

Feedback should be direct and succinct. Let your employee know that you noticed a drop in performance and you would like to do something about it. There is no point in trying to cover up the message with positive comments, something known as the sandwich technique where you put a bad piece of feedback between two positive ones. People can often see right through this, and your message will lose clarity. Focus on one thing at a time. Praise is necessary, but right now we are dealing with bad performance, and it needs to be fixed.

Be understanding though, your employee probably feels bad about it already, there is no need to be harsh. Instead, focus on what needs to be done to correct course. Be open as well, and give the person space to express their feelings, but don’t allow excuses, you have your data to back you up.

Find out reasons for bad performance

If there is a reasonable explanation, it is your duty as a manager to find out. There could be personal issues, problems outside work, lack of motivation, burnout, skill gaps… even a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

Nonetheless, you should explore all the options, and get to the bottom of the issue.

Sometimes the employee is not aware of the specific reasons. In that case you should help them with coaching to discover the answer.

Finally, in some other occasions, the employee was not even aware of the fact that there was a problem. This most likely has to do with miscommunication. If that is the case, review the communication channels. Find out the preferred means for the employee. Look out for Chinese whispers, lack of alignment with high level goals, and misuse of tools e.g. clogged email inboxes.

Clearly outline expectations

If they are a new starter, or recently assumed a new role, or are working on a new project, ask them if there is any part of the job where they do not understand what is expected of them. Give them the opportunity to ask questions and iron out any potential areas of confusion.

Prepare an action plan

Without a viable solution, any negative feedback is rather useless. People might even feel we are giving up on them. The best way to show that we care is with a well crafted plan. Be open to input and fine-tune the details with the employee. Ultimately, it’s paramount to get buy in and come to an agreement.

Set new goals

If the old goals were misaligned, it’s time to review them. Clarify grey areas and find new goals that are focused on recovering and getting back on track. Reassign some of the old but still important goals to someone else if possible. That way you’ll create some space for them to focus on their improvement. Make sure you explain why you are doing it, or they might feel you lost your trust in them.

Sometimes all they need is to relieve some stress, hit some wins, regain their confidence, and they are back in business.

Make them understand the impact

Sometimes low performers are unaware of the impact of their actions. They might think it’s no big deal to miss a deadline here and there, or to produce some low quality hacks.

Make them see the implications, how it’s impacting team morale, how other people need to fix issues they left unattended and how it’s costing money and resources.

If understanding that their bad performance is making their team unhappy and putting their jobs at risk doesn’t make them react, then nothing will.

Follow up

Raising awareness of the issue and putting together an improvement plan is just the beginning. Have regular catch-ups, focus on providing support, and highlight progress made. As a general rule, try to avoid micromanaging, but at this point, a bit more handholding than usual is acceptable as a temporary measure. As always, be transparent about what you are doing.

Say it when performance is back to good

A performance improvement plan must have an end. And it has to be clearly defined and agreed from the beginning. Make sure you say it when the performance is good enough again. But remind them that moving forward, you both should keep and eye on the issues that were fixed, so that they stay on the right track.

Clear the deadwood

Sometimes enough is enough. When improvement doesn’t happen after a reasonable amount of time, it’s time to let your employee go. Think of your team, they are having a hard time too, covering for unfinished work, and feeling somewhat helpless. At the end of the day, if you have done everything in your hand to help the person improve and nothing changed (or didn’t change enough), you will have made the right decision.

Be proactive by avoiding low-performance hires

It is impossible to predict low performance 100% accurately during recruitment, but it’s definitely something to have in mind when assessing a candidate. Ask yourself, will they perform at the level we require in the time that we need? If the answer is no and you still hire, chances are you will be revisiting this post soon enough.

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