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Managing performance

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  • Exercises
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Appreciating good performance is essential. But what if performance falls short?

The best way to "performance manage" is to give people regular, fair, and accurate feedback when they do jobs well and get good results. Our "Better performance management" briefing note summarises the Corporate Leadership Council's convincing survey showing that positive encouragement (where merited) is far better at improving results than even well-delivered negative feedback. (You will also find an exercise based on this survey here, to help you improve your own or your team's performance management.)

But poor performance has to be addressed too. If it’s a one-off glitch it may not be a problem. But supposing it’s starting to look like a pattern? You’re not happy. They’re not happy. The team’s not happy.

Let’s take it step by step, with an example - managing Mike, a person who reports direct to you. 

A deal is a deal

The foundation of good performance management is the deal you initially agreed with Mike.

Your part of the deal, as team leader is to be clear with Mike:

  • "Here are the targets we have agreed – x,y and z. They are few in number, stretching, but achievable with the resources plus skill and commitment” (see the SMART and compelling objectives briefing note to help with this).

You can’t expect results if the resources are insufficient or if Mike is being pulled in too many directions because you’re not doing your job.

Mike’s side of the deal is his commitment to deliver the results.

“A deal is a deal” is so fundamental to building trust that it is essential to spend time getting the deal right. Of course, stuff happens and life throws curveballs. But the deal is the bedrock of good performance management.

Resolute and reasonable

If Mike’s results don’t come up to scratch, there may be a number of things going on, but it’s unlikely he’s deliberately screwing up.

But he is responsible for results on his watch.

The process of managing poor performance can be a real challenge. It is essential to be resolute about results, but decent and fair with people. The more frequently you review progress together the lighter the touch can be. The conversation should be straightforward and candid - along the lines spelled out in the 'giving feedback' briefing page.

Here’s how to go about it in three stages:

Three stages of managing poor performance

  1. Agree the data that give you cause for concern
  2. Analyse possible explanations
    1. Check if you had the same expectations.
    2. Is it a skill problem?
    3. Is it a commitment problem?
  3. Agree actions

Agree the data that give you cause for concern

The first part of the process is to look at the data together, look at the deal and agree the problem. Do this by going through the results as you see them, verify and agree the information and so on.

Analyse possible explanations

This in itself is a three-step process:

1. Check mutual expectations

First, re-visit the original expectations. Have you set Mike up with a fair chance of success, or have you set him up to fail? Is he simply overloaded with work? Is it simply a mis-match between expectations and resources? If so, what does this mean for commitments you have made to others?

If this is the explanation, you and Mike can work together to reduce expectations, stretch deadlines or increase the resources available to Mike. No easy options, but at least you’re combining your effort.

There are two more areas to review, often known as skill and will.

2. Check if it is a skill problem?

Mike or his team are basically capable, but short on the skills needed. This should have been spotted earlier and factored in to the deal (perhaps calling for a separate conversation with Mike), but specific training will resolve the problem. An extra cost, but you may be able to get results back on track.

Or maybe, even with extra training , you sense that Mike or his team just don’t have the potential to develop the necessary skills. What then?

Assuming you have been through the proper processes to help Mike to improve his results, eventually you have to move Mike to a job that better suits his skills.

The emphasis here is decency. This is a problem of mis-casting. Mike is probably as uncomfortable as you and the rest of the team.

Your responsibility is to work with Mike to find a job he is better suited to.

3. Check if it is a commitment problem?

Mike or his team are not pulling their weight. They may be de-motivated. They may be lazy.

De-motivation. Mike has the skills, but isn’t showing commitment. This needs exploring with him. There may be something you can do to help him through a difficult patch. It may even be something you’re doing that is sapping his confidence or enthusiasm.

Ultimately, though, you struck a deal with Mike. You must make the fine judgement call between moving him on to a job that he finds more motivating, or sticking with him through a challenging period.

Lazy is more straightforward, but more difficult. If Mike can’t or won’t shift his attitude - in a decent, legal way you move Mike out. The world does not owe him a living, and you don’t owe him a job. The team will thank you for it. They have been carrying a passenger they didn’t need.

Agreeing actions

When you have sorted through the possible explanations, you and Mike need to agree the actions to be taken, the resources and support to be committed, and a follow-up review date. These should be written down.

Management without consequence

The basis of a high performance culture is that performance has consequences.

Management systems where it doesn’t make any difference whether you perform well or badly – you still draw the same paycheck - are insidiously demoralising. They undermine people’s respect for the organisation.

Performance management is notoriously difficult

When everything is going well performance management is joyful; the consequence is praise and celebration.

When it’s not, it’s uncomfortable. But it can still be done with decency and honest dialogue.

You want to steer clear of nagging and micro-management. And you certainly need to steer clear of bullying. But you also need not be apologetic or embarrassed – the Director’s job is to get the best possible results from the team.


Exercise - Improve your performance management

Time: 1 hour

The aim of this exercise is to improve the way you manage people's performance. You can do the exercise on an individual or team basis.