Handling Poor Performers

It would seem obvious that organizations that retain uninspiring managers who barely deliver the goods – in other words, poor performers – risk harming their business’ bottom line.

In fact, one book on talent management, The War for Talent, by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod, concludes that successful managers surveyed in one US company grew profits by 130 per cent, while the underperforming managers achieved no profit growth.

Organizations that allow underachieving managers to languish on the payroll lower the bar for overall performance, encourage the hiring of more low performers and fail to attract talented people. When this occurs, the CEO and senior management risk having their judgement questioned and jeopardize faith in their leadership.

As well as hurting the organization, accommodating an underperformer does that person no favours. Struggling managers become overwhelmed by a loss of self-esteem, engage in self-protective behaviours (defensiveness, bullying, withdrawing) or even become self-destructive (increasing alcohol or drug consumption, or ignoring signs of ill health).

Despite the many downsides to keeping on an underperformer, the phenomenon repeats itself in many organizations.

In our experience, five key assumptions made by senior management about handling poor performers, contribute to dealing ineffectively with underachievement.

Handling poor performers is dangerous
The belief that managing or firing poor performers will create anger and fear in the organization sometimes prevents leaders from identifying less than adequate people. Concerns about being sued or triggering workplace violence after letting a weak manager go make leaders nervous too.

When an organization makes talented management a priority, relief, renewed excitement and enthusiasm can replace feelings of frustration, discouragement and resentment. Legal threats are less likely when poor performers are treated respectfully (e.g., informed about their performance regularly, not discriminated against and offered generous severance and support if fired). Incidents of violence are less common when people are treated with dignity. Guarding against humiliating the weak performer is key.

When subordinates no longer “carry” an under performing manager, they are free to advance their careers, increase productivity and become more efficient.

Dealing with poor performers is mean and unfair
The idea that taking action to deal with under achieving managers is mean-spirited and hurtful can be based upon a sense of loyalty, and friendship with the leader. Respect for the contribution the individual made also makes dealing with poor performers seem unkind.

Yet, when a manager senses disrespect from peers and subordinates and no one says anything, he or she may feel unsupported and betrayed by the company.

The company is letting them down by not being straight forward, by procrastinating when dealing with poor performance or rationalizing patterns of inadequate results.

Handling poor performers is humiliating
Everyone can relate to the feelings of pain and humiliation that failure brings. This understanding is powerful enough to dissuade many leaders from having frank conversations with managers about their performance.

Ironically, underachievers are being set up for failure when they are not given feedback. Poor performers who receive constructive guidelines, obtain support, development opportunities, skills and reasonable time in which to change have a chance of improving compared to those allowed to stagnate without direction.

If no change is documented after these efforts have been made, and the leader has no other choice but to dismiss the underperforming manager, that individual requires help finding other employment.

Handling poor performers is time consuming
Providing written feedback regularly, documenting manager progress, reviewing performance, interviewing subordinates about manager strengths and weaknesses takes time.

But accommodating poor performance wastes time too, through inefficiency, lack of productivity, lack of retention and absenteeism. Ultimately, effective talent management is a time-saver and increases the likelihood of business success.

Managing poor performers is messy
People don’t like hard feedback. They can get mad, cry or go silent. It takes emotional strength to work with struggling managers. It is admittedly difficult to supervise and give feedback to poor performers, but with empathy, patience and courage, leaders gain the wisdom needed to differentiate between poor performers who can change and those who need to leave.

Over-investing in poor performers who deliver average or less than average results can be a danger when companies believe all sub-par achievers can be developed into successful managers. Going to extraordinary lengths to “help” a manager in difficulty may be doing the organization and the manager a disservice.

What’s difficult is maintaining the courage to manage talent by investing in developing people and being willing to identify excellent, very good and average or below average performers. No one likes to be judged or thought of as inadequate – but no one likes to be misled either.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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