We’ve all seen it. Everyone in the team is working flat out, their eyes fixed on an impending deadline they can’t miss. Everyone that is, except one. This individual may be working just as hard as the others, or they may be actively disengaged, but their failure to meet defined deadlines is dragging down the rest of the team.
At this point, most managers call a team meeting. Rather than singling out the underachiever, they address the whole team, hammering home the importance of meeting deadlines. That’s a kick in the teeth for those who gave it everything to deliver on time – and you can bet your last dollar they know exactly who the conversation is targeting. The obvious solution is to go directly to the source and tackle the problem one-on-one. So, why isn’t that our go-to response?
Why do managers avoid one-on-one conversations?
“From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances of survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run.”
– The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
We all like to be liked. However, as leaders (and I don’t believe this is exclusive to CEOs), it is a mistake to put this natural desire above the needs of our teams.
A one-on-one conversation may be unpleasant – and potentially damaging to your personal relationship with an individual – but by putting it off, you are failing in your role as a leader. In fact, a 2010 study found that every crucial conversation managers avoid costs businesses an average of 8 hours of productivity and US$1500¹. To put it simply, we can’t always afford to be liked.
Mindful managers are good managers
There is a lot riding on your ability to manage an underperformer. Studies have shown that supportive leadership and a high quality team climate have a significant impact on individual morale, helping to protect employees from work-related stress².
Great managers are mindful of the impulse to avoid a difficult situation, but they don’t let it stop them from addressing the problem and finding a solution.
Getting to the root of the problem
“We need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates.
Poor performance and missed deadlines are caused by many issues. A lack of ability and a lack of motivation are two of the most common. However, misunderstandings and poorly defined expectations are just as likely.
Regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of SMART goals. Sustainable, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound, these objectives make it clear to an individual what is expected and how they can achieve it. If employees are missing deadlines because of a lack of skills, poor organisation, or unclear expectations, then setting SMART goals is a great way to identify and address the problem.
How to deliver constructive feedback
One-on-one conversations can be stressful, particularly if an individual knows they are failing to meet expectations. I have addressed the issue of reducing stress in feedback conversations before, here are the key takeaways:
- Include emotions: Linking feedback to your emotions increases its impact. ‘When you do x, I feel y.’
- Reduce the threat: Individuals who are concerned about job security, your personal opinion, and their status can feel threatened. Make sure feedback conversations are two-sided and plan ahead to reduce these threats. Give the individual a chance to evaluate their own performance and devise a solution together.
- Be fair: An employee who consistently underperforms can be frustrating, but it is important to exclude your personal opinions from feedback conversations. Base your comments on facts rather than assumptions so individuals can see that your assessment is fair and unbiased.
- Focus on the future: Yesterday’s missed deadline is in the past. Keep performance conversations forward-focused and ensure individuals have the tools and support they need to deliver on their next objective.
The role of performance management
All employees need a sense of purpose, and performance management is key to aligning individuals with organisational goals. Clear direction at every level increases creativity, organisational performance, and individual engagement.
Meeting one-on-one with team members gives them a chance to be heard. This means you can stay abreast of any potential performance issues at an individual and team level, and address them before deadlines are missed.
That said, you can have too much of a good thing. Those of you who caught my article on the science of feedback will know that monthly feedback strikes the right balance between overloading and underwhelming employees. In fact, detailed monthly feedback on areas of weakness was shown to improve individual performance by as much as 46% (if you missed that article, now is the perfect time to check it out).
To Sum Up…
Individuals who consistently miss deadlines are detrimental to the health of your team and organisational growth. The only solution for managers is to address the problem head on. If we want to avoid cynicism within the team, reductions in individual morale, increases in employee turnover, and reduced organisational performance, we need to overcome our personal distaste for difficult conversations and provide employees with the feedback they need to improve.
¹Maxfield, B., 2010. Cost of conflict: why science is killing your bottom line. VitalSmarts
²Deakin University, 2016. A manager’s role in the risk management of workplace stress. Deakin University
A whopping 65% of Australian HR managers admit to hiring an employee who failed to meet their expectations¹. These poor performers are an expensive commodity. They reduce productivity², monopolise their managers’ time³, and drag down the morale of those around them¹.
With so much at stake, addressing under performance is crucial to long-term organisational success. However, poor performance is a complex issue, and there are many reasons why someone might not be giving work their all. More often than not, that reason lies with their manager. So, how do we separate the true poor performers from those who are struggling to meet expectations?
The Reasons Behind Poor Performance
There are two main reasons why someone under performs; lack of ability, and lack of motivation⁴.
Ability is governed by more than just skill. While competency gaps are an obvious reason for poor performance, a lack of resources, expectations, and understanding will also affect an individual’s ability to perform well.
Motivation is influenced by both external and internal factors. Mental health issues such as depression can impact productivity and motivation⁵, as can tensions within a team, concerns over job security⁶, burnout, and a lack of incentive or accountability⁴.
Source: Eagle Hill Consulting
Managing Poor Performers
When addressing performance issues, do not view the individual as a poor performer. Assume that the problem is your responsibility since, as a manager, you are ultimately responsible for setting expectations, ensuring they are understood, and providing resources that enable staff to deliver on their objectives. Managers also have a huge impact on motivation and job satisfaction.
A one-to-one conversation is the quickest way to identify the problem. Avoid comments that sound critical or personal, and instead keep the conversation forward focused,
“I noticed that you’ve been struggling to meet deadlines recently, and I wanted to check in and see if there was anything I could do to help.”
By the end of the meeting, you need to have a thorough understanding of how that individual does their job and what obstacles and everyday problems they encounter.
Don’t be surprised if you hear the phrase, “I’m working as hard as I can”, or “There is nothing more I can do.” In my experience, this is true, and the individual really is working to the best of their ability. As managers, it’s down to us to identify any obstacles and address inefficiencies.
Training and Coaching
If your performance conversation highlights a skills gap, then it is your responsibility to address it. Providing employees with the opportunity to gain job-related skills introduces new ideas and encourages innovation, increasing productivity in the process⁷. Don’t be afraid to allow individuals the freedom to implement those ideas, either. Giving employees the autonomy to adjust ineffective workplace processes can improve performance at both a team and individual level⁷.
Ongoing feedback and coaching are vital to the success of any performance management strategy, especially when managing under performers. Coaching places the responsibility for finding a solution on the employee but provides them with the support they need to identify that solution. It’s a great way to increase confidence and help individuals prioritise their workloads, and can boost productivity by as much as 21%⁸.
If a lack of skills is the problem, then a combination of on-the-job training and coaching is often an effective solution. Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight, recognise that the process may take months and give the employee the time they need to address skills gaps.
Setting SMART Goals
If the individual doesn’t understand what is required of them, then it is up to you to establish clear expectations. Regular readers will know I’m an advocate of SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. By providing employees with a measurable objective and clear deadline, you increase responsibility for the outcome and individual accountability for performance.
Addressing the Impact on Team Members
In a US study, 68% of professionals cited a negative impact on employee morale as the biggest problem with poor performers. Most (54%) believe that they also play a pivotal role in cultivating an environment where a mediocre performance is acceptable⁹.
Leaders spend nearly 20% of their time managing under performers³, so it is crucial that you don’t overlook the rest of the team. Schedule performance conversations with those working alongside your poor performer. Focus on identifying any long-standing issues or obstacles facing the team as a whole and make sure that employees who are meeting or exceeding expectations feel valued and appreciated.
Knowing When to Quit
If intrinsic motivation is the problem, then you have on your hands a real poor performer. You can determine this by attitude, and a performance conversation or coaching session will generally be met with repeated negativity and disengagement. If this is the case, then the only solution is to remove the individual from their role.
To Sum Up…
Poor performance is a complex problem influenced by many factors. Addressing the issue requires a personalised approach, with a focus on improving workflow efficiency and providing individuals with the resources they need to meet expectations.
Do you have experience managing poor performers? Feel free to share your ideas, insights, and successes in the comments section below.
¹Robert Half, 2016. The cost of a bad hire: 10% of employee turnover is attributed to a poor hiring decision. Robert Half.
²Ekpang. 2015. Counselling for effective work performance: a way for service improvement. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 20 (3). pp. 39-43.
³Robert Half, 2012. One bad apple. Robert Half.
⁴Marr. 2015. 7 causes of poor employee performance and how to address them. LinkedIn Pulse.
⁵Wang, et al., 2004. Effects of major depression on moment-in-time work performance. (Abstract) The American Journal of Psychiatry. 161 (10). pp. 1885-1891.
⁶Staufenbeil and Konig, 2010. A model for the effects of job insecurity on performance, turnover intention and absenteeism. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
⁷Fernandez and Moldogaziev, 2010. Empowering public sector employees to improve performance: does it work? The American Review of Public Administration 2011.
⁸Cognology, 2015. A leader’s guide to coaching. Cognology.
⁹Eagle Hill Consulting, 2015. Are low performers destroying your culture and driving away your best employees? Eagle Hill Consulting.
You might not have heard of the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ before, but I’m willing to bet it conjures up a face or two. According to Dr Elaine Aron, who coined the phrase back in the 1990s, nearly 20% of us fall within this bracket1. Which means most offices have at least one hypersensitive person.
Creative, with a high attention to detail that often equates to exceptional performance, highly sensitive people can be incredibly useful. At the other end of the scale are less productive behaviours, traits many leaders struggle to manage – especially when it comes to feedback and performance conversations.
Hypersensitive people are especially receptive to social, emotional and physical stimuli. This group typically become overwhelmed during busy periods, don’t respond well to sudden changes, worry excessively and display emotional behaviours less sensitive people may consider extreme. These reactions make addressing shortfalls in performance problematic, which is why leaders must learn how to deliver constructive feedback to hypersensitive individuals.
Acknowledge Social Bias
The reactions of highly sensitive people are often considered inappropriate in the modern workplace. Excessive displays of emotion can be viewed negatively, while a tendency to become flustered under pressure, avoidance of stressful situations and an inability to cope with changing demands are often viewed as incompetencies.
When preparing for a discussion with a hypersensitive person, acknowledge your bias towards their behaviour. Does their emotional reaction make you uncomfortable? Are you exasperated by particular reactions? Hypersensitives are very aware of body language and tone, understanding your response and staying objective is essential for keeping any conversation on track and avoiding misunderstandings.
Adopt Agile Performance Management
Frequent readers will know, I’m a big advocate of Agile Performance Management (APM). Regular feedback means this system delivers tangible benefits to productivity and engagement.
For highly sensitive people, it also offers a raft of other advantages. These guys actively avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable, and an annual performance review could mean weeks of stress and worry.
By meeting regularly for informal one-to-ones, leaders create a less intimidating environment. Setting goals and keeping the conversation forward-focused puts less emphasis on feedback that could be construed as criticism and reduces the chance of an overly emotional or defensive reaction.
Potentially inflammatory conversations with highly sensitive people can be avoided with forward planning. Schedule any meeting well in advance. This allows you to reduce the threat of the situation as much as possible and gives a sensitive individual the chance to prepare (a valuable coping mechanism for many hypersensitives).
Highly sensitive individuals have strong emotional reactions2 and can become defensive when criticised (or when faced with perceived criticism)3. Using empathy in your statements and speaking in a low voice can go a long way to avoiding confrontation4. Remember, a feedback conversation is not a trial. Don’t go over evidence or allow for counter arguments. Simply state the feedback relating to a specific expectation and focus on strategies for success in the future.
Take Control of the Conversation
Every performance discussion should focus on moving forward and the necessary actions needed to achieve success. For highly sensitive people, who are typically very invested in their work, this reduces the threat of criticism and keeps them motivated.
If you find yourself drawn into a disagreement, then be mindful of your reactions. Hypersensitives are quick to pick up on body language. Listen calmly, keep your voice low and avoid ambiguous language, or statements that can be misinterpreted, as much as you can. If you can’t get a highly sensitive person to agree to your feedback, get their agreement on the outcome and future goals instead.
To sum up…
While managing hypersensitive people often requires more thought and consideration from leaders, it is important to note that these individuals should always be held to the same standards as their colleagues. Failing to address performance issues for fear of causing a scene or upsetting one individual will have a negative impact on engagement and productivity throughout their team.
A highly sensitive person who is unable to meet expectations or consistently performs poorly must be managed appropriately, and should not remain in a position they are unsuitable for purely because they are hypersensitive.
What are your experiences with hypersensitivity in the workplace? I’d love to hear your thoughts on managing this unique group.
1Ramsay, 2014. Highly sensitive people in the workplace: from shame to fame. HRZone
2Lawrence, 2013. Are you a highly sensitive person. HRZone.
3Aron, 2007. A meditation for HSP on criticism: the killer. Elaine Aron.
4Thibodeaux, Not dated. How to deal with an overly sensitive person in the workplace. Small Business.
Imagine joining Netflix before anyone knew what it was. You received a job description before starting. On day 1 your boss gets you started on your key responsibilities. Whether your role is to sign movie licensing deals, develop their software or provide customer service, as often happens for a large majority of people, your sense of engagement will likely start strong and then wane in the months following the honeymoon period.
But now imagine what would happen if before you even started, you knew the purpose for Netflix and how you fit in. You knew they wanted to create the worlds most popular movie and TV streaming service. They wanted to give people access to the shows they loved on-demand, a completely new idea.
The people you worked with continually talked about this picture of the future. How much more engaging and motivating would it be? You’d have a purpose beyond your end of week pay packet. As Hubspot’s culture code puts it: “paychecks matter but purpose matters more.”
Individual performance (and subsequently overall business performance) dramatically improves when employees know why they are doing their job. It’s further enhanced when people know how their job impacts or contributes to the goals of the business overall.
The key benefits of a sense of purpose
Maintain a sense of purpose at all levels in your organisation – linking everyone’s job to the bigger picture – and your business will reap the rewards:
- Significantly higher engagement – which lowers absenteeism and turnover and increases productivity
- A faster business – with everyone pulling in the same direction you can achieve your goals more quickly
- A more innovative business – having a clear direction promotes more creativity
Well-executed performance management clearly defines the link between an employee’s job and the objectives of the business – day in, day out. Here’s how:
1. Clearly articulate company goals to everyone
Sharing your company’s goals is the starting point for both purpose-driven employees and great performance management.
Creating a sense of purpose at an individual level starts with the leadership team asking “why do we do what we do?” – then clearly communicating the answer to the business. In his 2010 TED talk, Simon Sinek makes a terrifically powerful appeal to leaders (it’s worth watching):
“It’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them.”
Transparent company goals that are communicated clearly and often lay the foundations for a workforce driven by a shared purpose. They are also the bedrock for effective performance management.
At its core, great performance management ensures that employees are aligned with the business as it moves forward. It has the power to ensure the right people are in the right roles, doing the right tasks and developing their skills in line with business needs.
Of course, in order to do this job effectively, performance management relies on every employee understanding the fundamental goals of the business.
2. Align employee goals with business goals
Give your employees purpose by clearly explaining exactly how their job affects the success of the business. A crucial step in the implementation of a great performance management system is giving goals this context.
The SMART approach is a best-practice method for setting goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). The ‘R for relevant’ is the key here – make sure all goals are clearly relevant to the business’s purpose.
For example, using the idea in our introduction, if you were setting a goal for a HR executive, an aligned and purposeful objective would be to “Contribute to successful commencement of services in Australia by establishing a leadership team by January 2015 with proven past successes building operations from the ground up”
At Netflix, giving employees context is ingrained behaviour. The Netflix culture code captures this by saying: “High performance people will do better work if they understand the context.”
But it’s not just Netflix that says so – research backs up the statement strongly. If you’re interested to read more on this, I can suggest two papers from the Center of Advanced Human Resource Studies: ‘Seeing Clearly’ from this collection of white papers and ‘Employee line of sight to the organisation’s strategic objectives – what it is, how it can be enhanced and what it makes happen’.
3. Use performance management to maintain a sense of purpose when things change
Business objectives, and subsequently business strategies, can change in a heartbeat – especially in fast-moving, innovative organisations, or those facing fierce competition, regulatory upheaval and so on. Change can mean that job roles quickly become misaligned with the new direction of the business. To keep your employees on the right track and adding value despite shifting sands, ongoing feedback and coaching is crucial.
The effect of coaching on purpose and engagement hasn’t gone unnoticed at Wells Fargo. A top executive announced last year that he expects bank managers to spend two thirds of their time coaching their staff.
Ongoing feedback and coaching are key elements of best-practice performance management. Providing plenty of contact time between employees and their managers/mentors, regular feedback means new strategies can be quickly implemented on the ground.
Done well, every coaching and feedback session will leave your employees feeling that achieving their individual goals are directly connected to the success of the business.
A sense of purpose lies at the very heart of driving employee engagement and better business performance.
Great results happen when every employee is connected to purpose, every day. Best-practice performance management makes this straightforward.
With clear goals, feedback and coaching, your employees will have a direct and tangible connection to the success of your organisation.
Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Regular feedback is one of the most powerful tools in improving the performance of employees. Recent numbers say 65% of employees want more feedback than they’re getting, with 98% of employees disengaging when managers give little or no feedback.
With numbers like these, there’s no question that regular, meaningful feedback is crucial to business success and employee satisfaction. What is less certain is how to help ensure managers actually give the feedback that delivers better performance and more engaged people.
The answer relates directly to stress. People actively avoid giving feedback because it’s so stressful. If we could remove or lessen that stress reaction, we’d all be much happier to give and receive feedback more often.
A recent webinar from Harvard Business Review: “Making Feedback Less Stressful” aims to do just that.
The best webinar on feedback I’ve ever seen
Whether you need to encourage your leaders to deliver feedback more often – or you’d like to improve your own skills, this SlideShare is a great resource (If you’re working specifically in this space, I suggest bookmarking this 146-slide pack). It’s the brainchild of Ed Batista – executive coach, change management consultant and course facilitator at Stanford University. Batista facilitates ‘Interpersonal Dynamics’ (or ‘Touchy Feely’ as it’s more commonly known), which is one of the most popular electives at the university.
If you’re short on time, let me help. In this article, I’m going to talk about the two most important things that I took away from Batista’s webinar on making feedback less stressful.
Takeaway one: Why is feedback typically so stressful?
Before looking at how to reduce the stress around feedback, we need to understand why it’s so uncomfortable. Batista doesn’t beat around the bush here: “Feedback is a social threat”, he says. Just like all threats, it causes physiological, emotional and cognitive responses. These include:
- Increased heart rate
- Heightened blood pressure
- Anger, aggression, fear and anxiety
- A negativity bias
Of course, it’s the person receiving the feedback that experiences these stress-inducing reactions. However, being the person giving the feedback and being responsible for such uncomfortable reactions is no picnic either.
Takeaway two: How you can personally make feedback less stressful
If you knew your feedback was going to be accepted gratefully and acted on every time, how would that affect your management behaviour? My guess is that you’d deliver feedback much more often.
In his presentation, Batista suggests two frameworks for delivering effective feedback. Both of the frameworks focus on feelings – but from different perspectives:
Framework 1: A simple equation (that’s quick to remember)
This framework is an easy-to-remember equation that requires you to draw on your own feelings (as the feedback giver). If you link the feedback to an emotion you are feeling, it tends resonate more and have a longer-term impact
“When you [X], I feel [Y]”
[X] specifies a behaviour and clarifies what you’re talking about.
[Y] specifies an emotion, creating interest and influencing future behaviour.
For example: “David, when you keep making avoidable mistakes in these mark ups, I feel really frustrated.”
Framework 2: The SCARF model (for when you have more time to plan)
When you give feedback, you risk threatening five components of social situations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.
Before you give feedback, consider the recipient’s thoughts and feelings – and reframe your feedback accordingly:
Status is a person’s relative importance to others. If their status is threatened they will feel like they are being spoken down to, undermined or patronised.
How to reduce the status threat
Encourage people to give themselves feedback on their own performance:
“How do you think that went? How might you do it better next time?”
You may also want to give praise in public.
Certainty concerns the future – and how predictable or secure it is. At its worst, threatened certainty may manifest as a fear of being demoted or even fired.
How to reduce the certainty threat
Establishing clear expectations is the best way to increase certainty. While expectations would generally be set prior to a task beginning, you can give feedback during the task to help reduce certainty threat:
“Remember, the ideal outcome here is…”
If someone has autonomy, they have a sense of control over events and they have choices available to them. If feedback is seen as micro-managing, it will feel like choices are being taken away.
How to reduce the autonomy threat
As a threat to autonomy could feel like losing choices, the best way to avoid a negative reaction is to give choices as part of your feedback:
“Here are two options that might work, which do you prefer?”
Relatedness involves deciding whether someone is a friend or a foe. A healthy manager-employee relationship can be damaged if feedback threatens relatedness.
How to reduce the relatedness threat
Encouraging friendships is a good way to reduce this threat, especially if people work remotely. At the point of giving feedback however, you may want to try personally relating to the task at hand:
“I had to do this last week/last year and I struggled, try this next time it might help.”
To evaluate whether feedback is fair or not, the recipient will look at the actions of other employees and the feedback given to them. It is important that your feedback is based on fact too – not an assumption or a generalisation.
How to reduce the fairness threat:
Make it clear that you are not treating one person differently to another:
“Like I just said to Sid…”
For more detail, check out ‘SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others’ by David Rock – the creator of the SCARF model.
Increasing the frequency of feedback is a sure-fire way to improve performance and engagement – both at the individual and team level.
However, telling your leaders to give feedback more often is only part of the story. Address the reason/s why people don’t naturally give feedback: complacency can be a problem, but the more probable reason is the uncomfortable stress reaction people often experience when both giving and receiving feedback.
Training everyone (including leaders) in the art of feedback is a great opportunity for companies wanting to step-up performance and deliver stronger results. I recommend using this webinar as a starting point. The great news is, everyone can learn to give better feedback more easily, with less stress for both the giver and the receiver.
Have you seen any other great resources on feedback? Let me know via Twitter: @cognology.
Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.