Truth & Consequences: How Managers Create Their Own Poor Performers

During the last few months, a recurring theme experienced by many of the companies I have worked with has been the struggle to address the problem of a poorly performing employee. When an employee fails – or even just performs poorly – managers are often left mystified. Several explanations are offered – the employee doesn’t understand the work, or isn’t driven to succeed, can’t set priorities, or won’t take direction. The problem is most often assumed to be the employee’s fault – and the employee’s responsibility.

But is it? Sometimes, of course, the answer is yes. Some employees are not up to their assigned tasks and never will be for lack of knowledge, skill, or simple desire. But sometimes, and I would venture to say frequently, an employee’s poor performance can be attributed largely to the actions of his or her employer.

Unfortunately, the road to poor performance frequently starts when a new employee is hired. A weak or nonexistent orientation to the company and culture leaves an employee to find the way through unproductive activity, often learning much about the company and its people that is not intended. What will the new employee be expected to do by the end of the first three months, six months, at one year? An early discussion of such performance expectations is essential for both the employee and manager to be clear about what the employee will have to learn and do in order to be successful, and to understand where the bar of performance has been set.

When bringing on a new hire, managers must begin by being actively involved with the individual, gradually reducing their involvement based on improved performance. Early guidance is not threatening to new employees (at any level), because it is not triggered by performance shortcomings. It is systematic and meant to help set the conditions for future success. Frequent contact in the beginning of the relationship gives the boss ample opportunity to communicate with the newly hired employee about priorities, performance measures, time allocation, and even expectations of the type and frequency of communication. That kind of clarity goes a long way toward preventing the dynamic of poor performance, which is so often fueled by unstated expectations and lack of clarity about priorities.

After the critical first year with a new hire, managers can avoid a journey down the path to poor performance by challenging their own assumptions and attitudes about employees on an ongoing basis. They need to work hard at resisting the temptation to categorize employees in simplistic ways. They also must monitor their own reasoning. For example, when feeling frustrated about a subordinate’s performance, they can ask themselves, “What are the facts?” They can examine whether they are expecting things from the employee that have not been articulated, and try to be objective about how often and to what extent the employee has really failed. Managers need to delve into their own assumptions and behaviour before they initiate any serious action to remedy the situation.

Employees often think they are doing splendidly. Some managers assume that the annual or semiannual performance review is all the feedback that employees need. Used alone, the formal review process allows too much time to go by before the employee is told what he or she is doing wrong. Realistically, you can’t be expected to provide feedback every day on every assignment. But when something important is involved, offering criticism and tips for improvement on a point that will have ramifications for future assignments can be invaluable, when offered sooner, rather than later. Too often, employees and managers alike, typically hear nothing at all. The “no news is good news” approach to feedback and performance assessment can be a recipe for disaster.

One cannot overstate the case for creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable discussing their performance and their relationships with the boss. Such an environment is a function of several factors: the manager’s openness, comfort level with having his/her own opinions challenged, even his/her sense of humour. The net result is the manager and employee feel free to communicate frequently and ask one another questions about their respective behaviours before problems mushroom or begin to surface.

There will be times when an employee is ill-matched to your organization. It could be that he or she is not really suited to your kind of business or your size of firm. It could be that he or she screwed up early and never will get another honest chance to succeed. It could be that you made a mistake in the hiring process. Whatever the reason, the employee’s interests, as well as your own, are best served when you bite the bullet sooner rather than later. You deserve to be using your resources developing employees who can succeed. Your failed employees deserve the chance to get on with their careers in what can be for them, another, more promising setting.