Managing Poor Performers: What You Need To Know Before Taking Action


August 2014 | By: By Joseph R. Weintraub

Estimated reading time: Estimated reading time: 13.5 minutes (17 minutes including video)

Key Takeaways

  1. Developmental coaching can close a performance gap and help an employee become a strong contributor, but coaching managers need to understand the root causes of performance problems and the requisite conditions for improvement.
  2. Performance problems can be multi-dimensional and can be driven by personal problems, personality, team dysfunction, poor communication of work expectations, alternative work arrangements and even organizational change.
  3. Sometimes—when people are put in the wrong role—coaching cannot be effective. Employees need to have a foundation of strength if they are to become superior performers in a given role.
  4. Following specific guidelines will help managers when they need to intervene in serious performance problems.
Page Content 1

How does a manager tell the difference between a performance problem and a learning curve?

At the simplest level, the hallmark of a performance problem is an ongoing gap between actual and desired performance, a gap that is not closing and may be worsening. Even the worst performers will be successful on occasion, but for those with performance problems, the gap is there much more often than not. Almost anyone can close a deal sometimes, but organizations need salespeople who can close deals consistently. If someone in a sales role can’t sell consistently after he or she has had an opportunity to learn the job, with appropriate support, a performance problem exists. As indicated though, performance also can deteriorate. On occasion, a gap may reappear. A performance gap may be observable in an activity that the employee seemed to have mastered. For example, someone who used to be able to sell no longer does so routinely, even though few other conditions have changed.

Performance problems can be driven by personal problems, personality, team dysfunction, and even organizational change. Performance problems often have to do with the simple fact that we are who we are; and we may be in roles that require us to be someone we are not. We cannot change our personalities or the personalities of others. Psychoanalysts tell us that we can come to understand ourselves better and perhaps channel our energies more effectively (no small accomplishment), but in terms of interests, intelligence, and personality-driven behavior, we can’t change all that much.

If the job of an individual whose performance is persistently problematic is to be salvaged, he or she will likely be on the receiving end of highly critical feedback from his or her manager, or others. Even in the most difficult of situations, there may be no other way to communicate to the employee that a serious performance gap exists and must be addressed. After a time, it can be difficult for any employee, no matter how mature, not to feel attacked. Sometimes, if the person is sensitive and/or the problem is serious, that feeling of being attacked will lead the employee to become very defensive. Such defensiveness can be overt or covert. People want to keep their problems hidden if they can, out of pride and self-preservation. As problems worsen, both the employee and the manager may feel threatened. The context for developmental coaching, which demands that the manager be nonjudgmental, can become poisoned. Both manager and employee can become very angry. His or her manager or other team members may not trust the person with the performance problem.

Why bother trying to help the person who is not performing at the level we expect? Most coaching managers we have met would probably be aghast that we ask such a question because they see it as their job to try coaching whenever a problem exists. This outlook fits their values, and it is important for them to be true to those values. Trying to help the performer with a problem can allow the manager to sleep better, a not unimportant outcome. And, of course, their efforts may work. We have seen people successfully address chronic performance gaps on a number of occasions. Finally, if the manager has established a coaching-friendly context, other people in his or her organization will expect performance problems to be addressed. One of the expectations that people hold in a coaching-rich environment is that people will help each other out. It is the coaching manager’s job to continuously model such a helpful attitude. It will pay off in the long run, if not in every case. So, for a number of very good reasons, most coaching managers tell us that they will try coaching even if they aren’t sure it will work. For these reasons, it is worth considering some of the root causes for serious performance problems.

Causes of Performance Problems

The causes of poor performance are numerous. First, it is important to note how much performance-related behaviors are multidetermined. There are likely to be several causes for any particular behavior outcome.

The system in which a performance problem emerges can be viewed as including the individual and his or her relationships with all aspects of his or her life, including the self, work roles and relationships, and nonwork roles and relationships. They each have a part to play, and they influence one another. The net result for the manager is that a performance problem may be beyond his or her coaching influence. The problem may involve aspects of the individual’s system that the manager is unable to reach. Therefore, intervention strategies that affect multiple roles or aspects of the employee’s life (bringing in human resources, health services, or employee assistance, for instance) should be considered. From the perspective of most managers, this is a hard-learned lesson. Business people with a can-do attitude like to be able to solve problems. The second point we hope the reader will take from the discussion is that the manager should actively seek the help of others when dealing with a significant performance problem.

Poor Managers and Poorly Communicated Expectations

Consistent with the classic Gallup findings, our experience leads us to believe that the first two core elements are key:

  1. The employee needs to know what is expected of him or her at work.
  2. The employee needs to have the material and equipment needed to do his or her work properly.

Poor managers are often poor communicators. The following quote comes from a senior-level individual contributor who had been referred to us by his manager. This individual had been labeled as having a performance problem. “You’d be working along, thinking everything was fine for a month or so, and then she [the manager] would call you into her office, after refusing to meet with you for weeks. She would start telling you everything you had done wrong in the past month, mostly mistakes that you didn’t even know were mistakes. She would change her mind about what she wanted, or would just lie.”

We were fortunate in being able to get both sides of this story. This senior-level employee was in fact not performing up to the company’s expectations for his particular role. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand what was expected of him until his work came to be seen as a problem. The reader may empathize but wonder what this case has to do with coaching. We found out when we interviewed the manager. She was angry with this particular employee and wanted to know what she could do to coach him to more adequate performance. This was the right question for her to ask. However, she went on to explain that she didn’t feel she needed to tell this employee what he was supposed to be doing. He was senior enough and experienced enough and ought to be able to figure that out for himself.

In this case, we decided that coaching was needed—but it was for the manager. What her employees needed was something more basic than coaching: clear direction. Even though the members of the team were quite senior, they still needed to get a clear sense of where she wanted them to go. They needed her to be more available so that they could talk with her to address the inevitable ambiguities that emerge when people are trying to do something important or innovative. The moral of this story is that one of the first things the manager should consider when dealing with a performance problem is whether he or she has contributed to the problem by failing to execute some of the basic tasks of management. The manager must make sure that he or she has clearly set expectations as a first step in examining what appears to be a performance problem.

The Wrong Person in the Wrong Job

Developmental coaching requires that employees and their organizations have at least some overlapping goals and expectations. Furthermore, an employee in any role needs to have a foundation of strength for that role if he or she is to learn and grow to become a superior performer. Developmental coaching cannot turn a great engineer into a great engineering manager unless the candidate also has a foundation of interpersonal skills, an ability to work with a variety of people, and an ability to plan and organize the work of a team. Some people, including some great engineers (or salespeople, creative marketers, or counselors, etc.), may not have that foundation.

Unfortunately, sometimes companies knowingly put the wrong person in the wrong role. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including a labor shortage or a well-respected employee’s wish to move into a different role for which he or she is not suited. Companies may give such an individual a try because of a misguided sense of loyalty, a payback for many years of superior service.

One of us recently consulted with an extraordinarily creative optical engineer who had become quite depressed. She had somehow come to believe that the only way she’d ever get the status she wanted was to go into management. Her company reluctantly went along with her request. She then found herself doing performance reviews, managing a budget, and dealing with interpersonal conflicts. She began to fail at all this and became increasingly upset with herself for doing so. The reality is that she had a severe performance problem in the manager’s role. It didn’t take much encouragement for her to go back to her manager and renegotiate her role, returning to individual contributor status. She was relieved, as was her family and the company. There was an immediate improvement in her mood, and, in a short period of time, she developed a new product design that resulted in several patents. All the developmental coaching in the world would not have helped this individual turn her situation around as long as she stayed in a management role. In fact, it might have made things worse.

In our view, the key to addressing this problem is prevention. Organizations and managers need to keep in mind the power of identifying the right talent and fitting that talent with the right roles and the costs of failing to do so. Many organizations now hire more for personal or cultural fit than for technical skill in some roles. Although this practice sometimes makes a great deal of sense, it requires that companies and employees carefully consider employees’ technical potential for new roles to which they might be assigned once they work in the firm. The stretch assignment should be acknowledged as such. Prior to taking such a stretch, the employee and company should carefully consider whether the potential is there for the employee to learn and be successful in the new role. Just being a team player does not mean that one can be a super salesperson or an effective manager.

The Right Person in the Wrong Situation

Alternative work arrangements and global assignments also can inadvertently disrupt the ability to perform of an otherwise highly competent individual. Changes in work arrangements can disrupt key support systems that sustain an employee’s performance. Diagnosis requires careful attention to context.

Employers are increasingly being asked to allow employees to work from home, for instance. But, at the same time, such alternative work arrangements can be challenging. Employees utilizing such work arrangements need to be capable of doing so. They will likely be working with less supervision. They will need to communicate with peers and customers, internal and external, in different and often more proactive ways. The core activities and tasks associated with their jobs may be the same. Everything else may have to change. And, finally, performance problems may at first be unobserved by management. Things can get worse before the usual alarms are raised.

The same challenges, of course, are associated with international assignments though the employee working globally may face a range of additional challenges. In addition to requiring them to exercise greater independence under conditions of lessened support, they have to deal with cultural transitions and, in some cases, time away from the family. Family issues precipitated by international assignments also can be of concern.

Obviously, we’re against neither alternative work arrangements nor global assignments. In fact, we think that both offer important developmental opportunities for the right individuals and organizations. We are, however advocating that careful attention be paid to creating the conditions that support successful job performance by those working in novel contexts. In particular, careful attention should be paid to defining those competencies required for successful performance under alternative working conditions. Those competencies are likely to be different from those required for success under traditional working arrangements. Careful attention to the required competencies then also suggests that selection and development processes be geared toward building those competencies. Employees who have successfully navigated through international assignments can be of enormous help to organizations hoping to learn about the competencies and support systems necessary for success. Consider every such assignment an experiment. Carefully assess the results so that you as a coaching manager can continue to learn about what works for your employees.

Guidelines for Addressing Performance Problems

Good managers don’t tend to give up easily when dealing with an employee’s performance problem. Their success rests on their having a helpful attitude, and they need to follow that impulse wherever it takes them. However, managers we have studied have also told us that they have their limits, which is a sound insight to keep in mind. The following guidelines will help when you need to intervene in serious performance problems:

  • Make sure the employee with the apparent performance problem clearly understands what is expected of him or her. Ask yourself whether you are part of the problem.
  • Use coaching as an experiment if you feel the person can be coached. Honestly assess progress. If progress is not forthcoming, consider the possibility that coaching may not be working.
  • Seek input from others who may have knowledge of the employee and the performance problem. Don’t go it alone. You want to be sure that bias and various perceptual distortions aren’t clouding your assessment. (Remember that perceptual biases can work both positively and negatively.) A side benefit of consulting with others is that your learning can be enhanced.

It may be necessary to alter the balance between self-assessment and feedback. When using a developmental coaching model which was the theme of our book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, reflection and self-assessment by the coachee are critical to encouraging employee learning and ownership of the issue at hand. Unfortunately, an individual with a performance problem may need more feedback to promote unfreezing than an individual who is more oriented toward learning. Feedback also may be useful if the only option is to insist on compliance, even in the absence of learning. However, take special care to make your feedback balanced, accurate, and respectful. Your attitude while delivering the feedback is important. If you are trying to coach, even under difficult circumstances, a helpful attitude is a must.

Encourage the employee to consult other resources. Even though employees may associate the company’s confidential counseling, or EAP (Employee Assistance Program), with the stigma attached to emotional problems, most EAPs offer a range of help, including career counseling, family counseling, and referral to external resources. Typically, they also are confidential. With additional support in a confidential setting, the employee may be able to let go of some of his or her defensiveness and engage in a more productive self-assessment. We offer one caveat, however. Senior executives are sometimes reluctant to take advantage of an in-company EAP for a variety of good and not-so-good reasons. If that is the case, the senior human resources manager often can locate other resources, external to the company, with which the executive might feel more comfortable working.

Follow-up is absolutely essential. Your only hope is that unfreezing can take place. As discussed previously, when unfreezing is necessary, the employee may need frequent feedback and frequent assessments of the impact of their actions. It is essential that employees at all levels be held accountable for their actions. Otherwise, unfreezing or other approaches to resolving performance problems are unlikely to occur.