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A Leadership Crucible – Managing Below-Expectations Performance

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Almost everyday, we hear the phrase – ‘performance-improvement plan’ or PIP, as it is famously, or rather infamously, known as. This is a scary word, most of the times, for the employee in question. And if we are talking about an employee who is either new to the company or role, and is not found doing as well as it was envisaged, the phrase becomes all the more grave – again for the employee, i.e..

But what about the role that the supervisor need to play in making this employee successful? Aren’t her stakes as high as the employee himself? And more importantly, what is the role the senior leader(s) play in this entire episode? Because for them, the task is two-pronged – one, to ensure fair chance be given to the employee in question, and two, to make the supervisor and other seniors in the hierarchy learn to deal with this crucial leadership challenge, thereby in the process making them better leaders… and the team-leader has to tread this double-edged sword without losing the sight of organisational goals of result-orientation and productivity. Some challenge, this is!

I have faced this challenge many times in my career as a HR leader. And experience has taught me one thing – there is no shirking of responsibility that can happen, if the leader really wants to make his team successful, in all aspects.

Few years ago, one of my lieutenants came to see me with his subordinate, who was herself a young, promising people-manager. They were perplexed with a similar challenge, as I discussed above. Her predicament was – a newly inducted subordinate of hers, who showed a lot of promise at the outset, was struggling within 6 months of joining. Despite a lot of coaching and guidance by herself and even her own supervisor, this new team-mate’s performance wasn’t up to mark. And worse, the business had started to feel the heat…

A long discussion ensued in my office. For my readers, I am sharing a note that I wrote to this manager, outlining my thoughts and an action plan.

Let me share upfront; this is a rather long note, which I felt was required to cover my thoughts on managing performance and developing a high-performance team. To assist in your reading, I have made necessary modifications. Other than me, the other three characters in the case are:

  1. Ms.ABC – the young people manager;
  2. Mr.JKL – her manager, also my deputy;
  3. Mr.RST – the employee whose performance is being discussed.

Here goes the advise that I gave her:

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Dear ABC

Yesterday, we discussed at length the performance & aptitude challenge that we are currently managing with RST. I heard both you and JKL, and shared my thoughts too. I am writing my notes, as under, to encapsulate my thoughts on this critical leadership challenge that we have on hand.

I have always firmly believed in the gospel of ‘making everyone successful.’ Having said that, to do so is indeed a daunting task for a leader; for multifaceted as the team is, no one ever seems to behave & perform like the other! Out of the lot, the toughest ones to manage are those, who showed a lot of promise & capability while being inducted into the job, but have slipped off the performance charts somewhere.

Now, it requires meticulous thought and concerted action, to bring such team-mate back to where he belongs – road to success for self and team.

Firstly, let me thank both you and JKL for showing commitment towards your team-mate’s development. This is by no means a small act – requires a lot of honesty and courage to stand up and say, “Hey! My team needs to do better, and I am game to make them better, whatever it takes.” Thank you, for recognizing the need for improvement and showing the promise to do better.

Our first step with such a below-expectation performer is to figure out what went wrong. Something did go wrong. Nearly all employees start their new job with positivity, enthusiasm and are raring to go – we all know RST did start like that. Maybe, something along the way diminished his enthusiasm. Or, he killed his own enthusiasm; both are possible in the workplace. Ascertaining the primal cause of this poor performance is the key if you are committed to help teammates like him become, not a poor performer, but a contributing member of our team. No employee decides to have a miserable day at work and feel failure as he leaves the workplace daily. Even an otherwise incompetent or misfit employee wants to do well for himself!

Very importantly, you need to ascertain if RST has his intentions right; for, if he is really a work-shirker, there is little hope for improvement. However, you have all hope if he really wants to succeed. That said, whatever conclusion you arrive at about why he is a below-expectation performer, you must try your level best to turn him around. Start by assuring him that you have faith in his ability to succeed. Inspire through showing the big picture – help him see the what fruits his efforts shall bear – why should he strive to succeed and improve. Guide him and make him set several short-term, achievable goals; which should be time-bound, with clear outcomes about which you agree. Once the goals are set, track execution and progress. And don’t forget the power of daily engagement – make sure he gets an opportunity to record small daily wins; that should take care of the morale front.

We also discussed yesterday the need of a written performance monitoring document. For those who feel that the team-mate who needs a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) will never succeed, I have many success stories to offer – we have seen so many of them succeed. In fact, I have used this to my benefit many a times, in making my team successful. So, I am a believer in the power of a well-planned, measurable PIP that is reinforced by well-intentioned and demonstrated support and encouragement provided by the manager.

We discussed at length yesterday the key ingredients of such a PIP. Some points that I wish to reiterate:

  • Clearly outline parameters of expected improved performance. Please be objective in setting these parameters and explain clearly, leaving no room for ambiguity.
  • State the minimum expectation level of performance. Ensure there is an appreciation of consistency of this improved performance. This is crucial as sporadic spurts of improvement aren’t really sustainable.
  • Discuss and agree the upon feedback mechanism. Specify the time and periodicity of performance reviews. Set the documentation mechanism of each review stage.
  • Ensure he understands measurements of improvement evaluation.
  • Specify what role you shall play in order to make him successful.
  • Explain upfront if he needs to make any changes in behaviour or attitude towards work. Share examples.
  • Focus on ‘what if’ – clearly outline what is the road ahead if expected performance levels aren’t achieved on every parameter, at various review-stages.

With above seven parameters considered, you’d have a robust PIP document ready. With this, ensure you provide any other support, resource, training, et al, which will help him expedite his improvement.

Let me say, I’ve always regarded problems as opportunities to do better, gain experience, and learn more, just to be a little bit smarter and perhaps wiser on how to handle life issues and situations. After all, as they say, we learn best, not by being taught and not by studying or reading, but by experiencing and then reflecting on what we did and what happened and then drawing conclusions and experimenting.

As a coach, I’ve practiced this method with considerable success; it helped me build and develop stronger teams. I am quite inspired by this leadership nugget that I read long ago – ‘the tactics espoused by great managers of people are very simple, they select people based on talent; when setting expectations for the team, they establish the right outcomes; when motivating an individual, they focus on strengths; and, to develop an individual, find the right job fit for the person.’ As we speak, you are currently managing the second and the third aspect, and what will make you successful is the willingness to make your team successful. I am sure; you have it in you do so.

Please do reach out, should you need any support from me.

Happy leading!

RRG

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A rather long note, wasn’t it? However, it helped me manage the challenge at hand. Let me tell you, this worked for all the characters in the story above, it helped each one of us become better. This helped the struggling employee receive a fair chance to demonstrate improved performance, guided and backed by her supervisor’s encouragement and intention to make her team successful. It helped her supervisor learn the leadership lesson in managing poor performance; and helped my lieutenant resolve a crucial team-managing issue and not miss out on either productivity or morale of his team. Given the fact that both these managers were young professionals, they learnt the invaluable lesson on people leadership and taking responsibility for their teammates in an utmost well-intentioned manner, unlike a lot of managers who consider PIP only as route for creating documentation and exiting the employee. What did I get? Well, I got three super-engaged team-mates in return! What more should have I asked for 🙂

Do you agree with my approach? Have you too experienced or observed a similar approach to managing below-expectation performance? Or have you witnessed poor leadership doing the irreparable damage? Do share your thoughts…

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Image-credit: whatisonthetable.wordpress.com

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