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Dr Sandra Borg
About the author

Dr. Sandra Borg

Dr Borg is the Executive Director of Consultancy & Training Acumen Centre Ltd, the winner of a Bronze Stevie® Award in the Company of the Year-Business Service category in The 2012 Annual International Business Awards and has been named as a National Finalist in the 2012/2013 RSM International Entrepreneur of the Year Award category, bestowed by the European Business Awards. (Cast your votes by logging on Dr Borg is also a tutor on the Henley MBA.

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Diploma in Strategic Management

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The Performance Procedure for an Underperformer!

Building Broad Support: Consensus and buy-in

The challenge for managers is what to do with under performers. Even seasoned managers can cringe at that thought of confronting their loyal staff with bad news. It can be so anxiety provoking that they procrastinate, deny, turn a blind eye, excuse, give in or give up. Unfortunately, poor performance doesn’t heal itself. Peak efficiency may be undermined because organisations retain people who are clearly not doing their jobs. Whilst there should be no room for the consistent underperformer in any firm which prides itself on its quality and standards, nevertheless, the underperformer should be given the opportunity to improve and develop, and should be offered every possible assistance in training, coaching and support.

A sympathetic firm will also want to investigate the reasons for underperformance. Such issues often include:

  • Trouble at home or other personal problems;
  • The employee is “burnt out” and no longer finds the work interesting or challenging;
  • The employee has not remained abreast of developments in his/her field;
  • The employee is not able to take on the responsibilities given;
  • Fear of failure in trying something new and reaching for career progression;
  • Externally driven reasons such as the loss of recent clients or downturn in the sector he/she operates;
  • The employee is struggling because of poor time management or other inefficiencies;
  • The employee lacks direction and is unaware of what he/she could be doing in order to succeed;
  • The employee is isolated from attending meetings, copied on key correspondence and hence not fluent with the organisation’s overall direction;
  • The employee may have been entrusted with an array of tasks that are overwhelming and unrealistic to achieve within the stipulated timeframe;
  • The employee is poorly monitored/ managed or has not been persuaded to agree to the “rules of the club”;
  • The employee is not engaged in developmental training programmes to further strengthen his/her portfolio of skills;
  • The employee is insecure due to issues like merger discussions;
  • Remuneration issues are pending, and has withdrawn into his/her shell, awaiting resolution of such issues;
  • The employee feels s/he might have reached a plateau within that department and does not feel enticed to reach new heights;
  • New members joining the department, peers or managers, with whom the employee feels that the ‘team chemistry’ has not evolved, and this lessens his/her productivity.

Making it real: Adopting High Value Planning Practices

A practical pragmatic approach is to start by defining a clear vision and then identifying the gap between actual performance and desired performance. A sound implementation is typically based on a step-by-step approach, progressing through the different phases as per exigencies, aimed at closing the gap.

Phase One – Guidance and support

The manager should clearly be responsible for monitoring the employee’s performance and in supporting the employee to address specific areas of performance gaps. At times it may be required to shift the manager’s attitude and remind him/her that since most people want to do well, they welcome feedback intended to support their development. In effect, a manager’s commitment to preserving an employee’s job can significantly strengthen their relationship.

Where the identified concerns need some action, the manager should agree with the underperforming employee what specific action is needed to address the shortcomings. The action points should focus on objectives that should be specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time bound. The underperforming employee must be given ample access to support by way of training, coaching, counselling and consultation, however the employee must be eager to embark on a ‘culture of discipline’ to address these gaps.

Phase Two – Intensive Care

The failure of informal attempts to improve performance should usually move the procedure onto the second phase of the process for a period of formal remedial action. It is, of course, possible that failure at Phase one may be as a consequence of ill-focused SMART objectives. More seriously, problems could result from the underperforming employee’s unwillingness to support and undertake the agreed objectives. Nevertheless, this failure should lead to a period of what might be referred to as ‘intensive care’. This period should start with the manager working with the underperforming employee to identify the reasons why the previous action points had not been achieved. They should then agree on a more drastic and final action plan and review process.

It should be abundantly clear by now to the underperforming employee that he or she is ‘drinking at the last chance saloon’. At times the manager may shy away from this phase as s/he may be feeling responsible or guilty that this represents his/her own failure to support the team. However, if a manager is not surrounded by the right people, carrying the right competencies, then the department’s success could be in jeopardy. As Susan Scott mentions in her book ‘Fierce Leadership’, ‘You will not single-handedly cause or prevent success. Surround yourself with people who model accountability, ferocious integrity, personal authenticity, the capacity to connect with others at a deep level, sheer courage, and a commitment to champion the common good over narrow self-interest.’

Once the timeframe contemplated by the second Action Plan has run its course, then there should be a review meeting and an agreement reached between the manager and the underperforming employee as to the outcome of the Phase Two Action Plan during the period of intensive care. This will hopefully lead to an agreement that the area of concern has now been addressed with the help of further coaching, counselling and training. One of the immutable laws of management physics is ‘Packard’s Law’ routed from David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company, ‘No company can grow revenues consistently faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth and still become a great company. If your growth rate in revenues consistently outpaces your growth rate in people, you simply will not build a great company’. Equally, it may be clear by now that there are aspects of the employee’s contribution or behaviour that are still not acceptable to the organisation, and thus the organisation may opt to consider whether to embark on phase three or possible phase four. The ultimate throttle on growth for any great organisation is not markets, or technology, or competition, or products. It is their ability to acquire and maintain enough of the right people.

Phase Three – Redeployment, if value-adding

In some cases it is clear that the underperformance is due to factors outside the employee’s concern. In such cases, it may be possible to consider redeployment of the underperforming employee to another area of the organisation. Redeployment of an employee whose issue is under-productivity within a specific department, can be an attractive option for organisations because it is both humane and in many cases has a good chance of success. But it does need an employee who is willing to retrain and an area of practice where there is a sustained need, otherwise the organisation might be “promoting” the underperforming employee to another area of the organisation, shifting the problem to another department/subsidiary. The obvious difficulty with this action is that the reasons for under-performance within the previous department, may have not have been addressed and the consequent under-performing may not change. The organisation would have simply passed on the problem to someone else, with possibly little or no indication to the new manager that this person may need some guidance or mentoring to become more productive. It may also be perceived as a lack of leadership as employees most often are fluent with issues related to performance gaps routed from their co-workers.

Phase Four – The individual may not be right for the job

Once the first three phases have been concluded without significant success, it is probable that the underperforming employee may not be right for the job. As Jim Collins points out in his book ‘Good to Great’, ‘The good-to-great leaders began the transformation by first getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus’. Obviously it is a matter of being rigorous but not ruthless. Allowing an underperformer to be part of the team, acting as a ‘free-rider’ whilst other team members are consistently striving to achieve objectives, can negatively influence the overall performance of the team. At this point, the employee should be encouraged to find another position to better match his/her skills and abilities. However, should the first three phases not have been carried out properly, then the organisation might have just terminated an employee that may have been a good employee who lacked guidance to address his/her performance gaps. By letting the employee go, possible ‘bruising’ the employee for life, the organisation could lose the investment it would have made to recruit and train that employee, not to mention future contributions the person may have made, had they been placed in a position that was a better fit. Actively mentoring and seeking a solution, sets an atmosphere of support which may result with a triple win in the long run –for the individual, the manager, and for the organisation.

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