First-class coach

With a poor performer, the key question is whether it's an issue of skill or will.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: It really annoys me that my company regularly pays off lazy or incompetent people instead of sacking them or trying to improve their performance. This seems to me like rewarding bad behaviour.

A: It's a sad reflection on failed responsibility that performance management is becoming a euphemism for getting rid of unwanted staff. The burgeoning number of compromise agreements and so-called redundancies are also testament to a failure to recruit the right people, and to manage them once appointed.

You are right to be angry: there's nothing so irritating to those who do a good job as to see slackers and incompetents walk away with a pay-off and a reasonable reference. And it's costly for the organisation: not only is it paying for an exit package, it's throwing away the cost of recruit- ing and training that person, and the firm risks demotivating its better people.

But it's always worth examining why someone isn't performing well. A sequence of questions can be helpful in pinning down the reasons for poor performance and finding the appropriate remedies. First, the seemingly obvious question: does the person know exactly what's expected of them? Is that expectation realistic and, if so, is he or she aware they are not meeting it? If any of the answers to these three questions is no, then the manager is the root cause of the problem.

Some managers are reluctant to engage in the essentials of what their staff are tasked to do, so aren't qualified to critique their output. And with many even less keen to spend time giving performance feedback, it can come as a surprise to the report to learn that they are not rated and that their contract is being terminated.

The next area to explore is whether the employee has the tools and resources to do the job well. Insufficient resources (for example, inadequate software for a complex task) can be supplemented or, if there are budgetary restraints on upgrading equipment or hiring additional staff, expectations can be modified.

Moving on to focus on the poor performer, the key question is whether it's an issue of skill or will. Does the person lack the knowledge and competence to do the job well, or is the problem rooted in their attitude? Lack of knowledge can be tackled by training; lack of experience can be offset by pairing the person with someone who has been doing the job longer.

If it's their attitude that is at the heart of the issue, some detective work is needed to establish what's behind it, because, unless they have deep emotional problems, it may be possible to change their outlook to a more positive one.

Here, coaching skills become an indispen-sable part of a manager's toolkit. Enhanced listening skills enable the manager to understand what's behind unconstructive behaviour and poor performance. Relevant feedback provides reports with data on their strengths and contribution but also on how they might be holding themselves or others back. Assertive communication gives them insight into the impact of their behaviour on others.

Overall, a manager with coaching skills can instil in a staff member the need to change and suggest a number of options. If staff recognise that the criticism is justified, they can decide either to change their attitude or behaviour or move to another role or firm. In my experience, disaffected staff often feel neglected, and just knowing that their boss is interested in them can make a big difference to their motivation. Agreeing on what improving steps the employee and the manager are going to take, setting a date for a progress review and recording the agreement will all help ensure that things don't drift.

Yet not all performance-management sessions have a positive outcome. There will always be some who persistently fail. For these, the session will become part of the statutory procedure leading to termination of their contract.

Ending employment in this way has two main advantages: it is far less expensive than fabricated redundancy or a compromise agreement and it sends a clear signal to the rest of the employees that poor performance will not be tolerated. My preference would be to add positive reinforcement by rewarding excellence at all levels. With a little imagination, this need not be costly. You could call this a carrot-and-stick approach, but that would imply your staff are donkeys, a demeaning view I could never endorse.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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