By Tom Davidson
If the person appears to be a reasonably good fit for the job, then you have to start to assume that the reason for poor performance is something else or a combination of reasons. Find out what to do here:
About 60 percent of a manager’s time is spent dealing with performance problems, a huge drain on energy, time and financial resources that could be better spent growing the business, improving teamwork or enhancing other efficiencies. Yet the problem persists because:
• Most organizations – even large sophisticated ones – tend to do a poor job in the selection and promotion process
• Senior managers continue to assume that a good individual contributor or subject matter experts will automatically make a good manager and leader
• Organizations overlook (or fail to address) blind spots, idiosyncrasies or previous performance issues that did not rise to a problematic level in previous jobs but will in new ones
As we discussed in the first blog of this series, no matter what the performance problem consists of, the manager has just three choices about what to do:
1. Fit – Finding the best fit for the person’s talents and interpersonal skills
2. Fix – Adjusting the key behaviors that are causing performance problems
3. Fire – Letting the person go to another job or organization where they are a better match
Fixing the Problem
If the person appears to be a reasonably good fit for the job, then you have to start to assume that the reason for poor performance is something else or a combination of reasons. Maybe there is a:
• Lack of awareness or motivation that needs to be addressed
• Miscue or miscommunication of some kind
• Distraction occurring that may or may not be temporary in nature
• Performance problem above or below the individual that is affecting the subject individual
• A gap in skills for the new role that requires training or a similar intervention
Sometimes managers need external help to solve a persistent problem of this type, but there are still three basic fixes that every manager should have in his first aid kit for performance problems. They are:
1. Clarifying expectations. This is the most common miscue or miscommunication I’ve seen that leads to unnecessary performance problems. For example, the person begins the job during a busy period, where his superiors were just too busy to help him get on-board as well as they should have. Additionally, people tend to assume that “everyone knows” what to do and how to do things around here. Furthermore, managers’ expectations vary widely, and the new recruit is often left to fend for themselves, finding out the expectations by making errors or tripping over landmines that someone should have shown them in the first place. Clarify expectations by:
a. Spelling out your expectations, preferably in writing, and give the associate a chance to ask clarifying questions. The expectations will vary widely by manager and situation, but they might include what tasks are most important, what is confidential, how updates should best be communicated, who else should be involved in decisions and actions, and what to do when there are problems. This one step leaves little room for doubt about both what is expected and how the job is expected to be executed.
b. Asking for the employee’s expectations of the manager. While the manager doesn’t have to accommodate everything, this reduces the likelihood or miscommunication or erroneous assumptions. It also helps establish vital ground rules to keep the working relationship on track and signals needed flexibility on the part of the manager.
c. Establishing frequent checkpoints, especially in the first 3- to 6-months on the new job, so that the associate has the best chance for course corrections before things have gotten too badly derailed. While this may be seen as micromanaging at first, I’d rather have that problem than an employee on a bad trajectory.
2. Giving fast feedback. Almost everyone has a hard time giving precise and timely feedback, unless it’s just “Good job!” or “Thanks.” But this isn’t nearly enough information to help the individual repeat what they are doing well or adjust what needs improvement. Moreover, if you don’t do your job as the manager in this regard, the poor performance you are getting may be as much your fault as anyone else’s! Here are some of the key principles of giving helpful feedback.
a. Make it balanced. Most of us are either good at giving blunt feedback or giving kudos, but few of us are naturally talented at giving both. One study recently pointed out that the manager needs to give three kudos for every criticism, just to maintain the associate’s self-esteem! While this formula will vary by personality and situation, the idea is a sound one, to give plentiful examples of what they are doing well.
b. Be specific. Managers who are not doing their homework or would rather avoid confrontation are usually vague about what is going well and what could go better. Keep in mind that you’re doing the person a huge favor by being specific. If you want to acknowledge someone for doing something well, tell them what was great and why it was so good. Without the latter, your support will wash off like just another “Atta boy.” The same is true for constructive feedback. Try this formula using observations of specific behaviors:
i. When I saw (heard, read or experienced) _____________.
ii. It made me think or feel _____________.
iii. So what would be better next time is ______________.
c. Be timely. All too often, managers save up their feedback for a weekly or monthly meeting or even the annual performance review. If you wait too long, the specifics will be forgotten, and the relevancy will be lost. More importantly, the individual will be left to repeat the problem in the interim. Don’t wait. Do it now, and document what was conveyed. Remember the human resources adage, “If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”
3. Show them what success looks like. This may be the biggest gift of all. Use the performance review (or interim performance improvement plan) creatively. All reviews of this type have a timeframe attached of 3-, 6- or 12-months. Sit down with the associate at the outset of one of these periods and say, “Let’s pretend for a few minutes that this time period ahead of us is actually over, and we’re reviewing your progress to that point. Let’s also assume you’ve done very well during this period and that you’ve solved most of the performance problems we’ve been talking about.” Then describe and document what you will have seen during that time period (behaviors, achievements or other corrections) that would have convinced you that the associate had fixed the problem.
The last item gives the associate a very clear vision for what they need to do, and gives them the best chance of all for being successful, which should be your ultimate goal. Whatever combination of these three tools you need, put them to work as soon as performance problems start to arise, and you will be able to spend more time on bigger problems!
What have you learned about these tools from you best bosses? How about your worst bosses?