Coaching Insider: How to manage poor performance

September 2, 2019 - 10 min read
Coaching Insider: How to Manage Poor Performance

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Acknowledge the challenge, and the importance of managing poor performance

Dig into the details and specifics of poor performance

Prepare for a frank conversation with a goal of understanding

Involve HR early

Make a plan for success

In this series, we present BetterUp coaches with realistic scenarios that we commonly encounter (and struggle with) in the workplace. They walk us through how they’d coach a client through the challenge and identify possible solutions.

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Imani was promoted to a manager role earlier this year. Her team of 5 has been doing really well, with one exception, Juliette. Juliette’s work isn’t meeting Imani’s expectations.

Imani has tried to give Juliette feedback, but while Juliette fixes the specific issues Imani calls out, she doesn’t seem to be incorporating the feedback into following assignments, which often have similar problems. Juliette’s work isn’t improving, despite Imani’s consistent feedback.

Imani has started thinking about letting her go, but she worries that she hasn’t done enough to help Juliette improve. She wants to be fair to Juliette, and also wants to be fair to the rest of her team and succeed as a new manager.

Acknowledge the challenge, and the importance of managing poor performance

One of the first things I would do in this situation is reassure Imani that it’s hard to manage performance and it’s ok to feel conflicted.

I would then emphasize that while performance management is never easy, it’s really important. Most employees know when other employees aren’t performing well. As a new manager, Imani needs her people to see that she’s taking appropriate action in this situation. Doing nothing detracts from her credibility as a leader.

In managing performance, you have to manage your team “up or out”— either you’re elevating them, or if they’re not the right fit, managing them out. This is actually good for both the person and the organization.

You have to manage your team “up or out”— either you’re elevating them, or if they’re not the right fit, managing them out.

Dig into the details and specifics of poor performance

We need to understand what is it exactly that Juliette’s doing or not doing that led Imani to the conclusion that Juliette is not performing. It’s important to zero in on the specifics, and not just broad, sweeping statements like “she’s just not as good.”

  • Is the work late?
  • Is it rushed?
  • What kind of errors are there?

In order to come up with a solution, Imani should be very clear on the quantitative and qualitative feedback.

Prepare for a frank conversation with a goal of understanding

Once Imani has all of her data, she should sit down with Juliette. Imani will need to be upfront and factual when communicating that Juliette’s work is not meeting her expectations.  While some people advocate the “compliment sandwich” technique to soften the blow of negative feedback, I don’t believe it’s helpful. In fact, it could actually distract from the main message, as people often choose to hear the good stuff and ignore the bad.

In this conversation, I’d urge Imani to take the coach role, and ask lots of questions to understand the root of the problem. I might recommend an opening statement like, “Juliette, we’ve had this conversation a number of times, about [these specific errors], and we’re still seeing them. Help me understand what’s preventing you from doing this work that meets expectations.”

A frank conversation can often reveal new information, so listen to your teammate closely and ask a variety of questions. Other questions to ask yourself as the manager might be:

  • Has this person been a good performer in the past?  
  • If yes, what’s changed? The nature of job? Something in their personal life? Some issue with Imani as her new manager?

Sometimes, this line of questioning can reveal a mystery that can be resolved without further action.

Here’s one example: Before I was a coach, I was managing a person whose work had taken a nosedive. When confronted with the issue directly, the woman revealed that she was trying to take care of her elderly mother before work. By the time she got to work in the mornings, she was so stressed and was not able to work effectively. We changed her hours temporarily, and ultimately, she found alternative help for her mother, her work improved dramatically, and her career wasn’t hurt by it.  

Before this frank conversation, Imani should practice! She should practice the words she’ll use. She should also practice to be prepared for any type of reaction. Imani knows Juliette, but this kind of conversation is never easy.

  • What will Imani do if Juliette denies all this?
  • What if she starts to cry?
  • What if she gets angry? Or shows no emotion at all?

I have so many years of experience with this; I’ve seen it all. At first I was surprised by some reactions, but not anymore. Don’t get derailed by the emotion. If Juliette is too emotional to continue, take a break. However, always come back to the discussion of expectations not being appropriately met. 

Involve HR early

I am a believer in getting an HR business partner involved early. As a new manager, Imani would need to understand the company’s policies and an HR partner can really help here. If Juliette has all the skills and support she needs and is just not performing then Imani may have to go down the performance improvement plan route, and an HR partner will be very helpful in making sure that’s done correctly. For instance, HR can help determine the right amount of time to correct the issue. Whatever the cause of non-performance, involving HR will likely be helpful.

Make a plan for success

Once Imani has uncovered any unknown reasons for poor performance, she can work with Juliette to address the underlying causes. Here are some examples that Imani may want to explore with Juliette:

  • Set clear expectations: Make sure that Juliette understands what she’s supposed to be doing differently.
  • Address skills gaps: Are there specific skills that Juliette is lacking? Did she have training? Was it appropriate to the job? Was it the same training as everyone else?
  • Review overall job fit: If she doesn’t have the right technical skills, how are her other skills? How are her teamwork and time management skills? Is she approachable? When you look at performance, you need to look at both the what and how of performance from all angles. IfJuliette doesn’t have the right skills, but is doing well in other soft skills area, perhaps we need to find her a new role in the company.
  • Consider non-performance: Does Juliette have all the right skills but is just not performing?

As part of the plan for success Imani should review her own management style. She is a new manager with a strong desire to succeed—is there something she can do to refine her management style that would help?

Above all, Imani needs to be clear that the current work isn’t satisfactory, outline what satisfactory work looks like, and commit to working with Juliette to fix the issue. While this discussion may lead to termination, it doesn’t sound to me like she’s there yet. Imani doesn’t have to decide today. This part of the conversation is about exploration.

Managing poor performance is a critical skill to learn and it’s always tough, but it does get easier. If Imani can help a team member get on track and be successful in her role, then she’ll have done her job exceptionally well. To do so, she’ll need open and honest communication and a positive, empathetic attitude.

Original art by Vaclav Bicha


Published September 2, 2019

Donna Aldrich

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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