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Poor Performance: Check Assumptions December 23, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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It can be very frustrating when you’re managing an under-performing subordinate. You lay out the goals and short-term tasks just like you do with all the others, but the results aren’t there and it’s often hard to understand why. The under-performer can take up more and more of your time as you attempt to provide feedback and coaching, and after a while it’s natural to just give this person less to do. These folks tend to settle into a semi-permanent state of lowered expectations and self-fulfilling prophecy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Of course some people must be below-average on the performance distribution in your team, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t deliver results with less management attention. I use a 4-step diagnostic process to help me figure out what’s going on and check my assumptions about the cause of poor performance.

1. Check for communication gap: Does this person understand what is expected from them? I’ve seen many situations where there’s a misunderstanding about objectives or priorities. This is a pretty easy one to fix and it’s where I like to start. Even people who were clear from the start can benefit from the question — it lets them know that you’re paying attention.

If there’s no communication gap, then:

2. Check for skills gap: Does this person have the skills and training to do the job? It can be hard for some people to admit that they don’t know how to do something, so this may require some independent verification. The remedy might seem to be “more training,” but that may not be practical, timely, or cost-effective. This person may be wrong for the job and should be given a different assignment (see my next post for more on this subject).

If there’s no skills gap, then:

3. Check for resource gap: Does this person have the resources to do the job? Are there barriers that are getting in the way? In other words, do they need management assistance to help clear the way? A very common problem here is organizational resistance from other teams or functions that don’t share the priorities that you’ve established for your team.

If they’ve got the resources, then:

4. Check for motivation gap: If they’re clear about what’s expected, and they have the skills to do the job, and they have the resources to overcome barriers, then this sounds like a motivation problem. Here you need to understand what motivates this person. I’d like to appeal to some higher level of Maslow’s hierarchy such as a need for achievement or association. If you have to resort to basic carrot-and-stick strategies, then I’d suggest you once again may have a square peg in a round hole.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve found this process to be very useful in diagnosing performance problems and guiding management action. I’ve found the most common problem to be “skills gap,” and I’ll write more about that in the next post.



1. productionengineer - December 27, 2009

I would add one more gap, call it a credibility gap. Once an employee gets a reputation for being an under-performer, that label is likely to stick with him/her even after it no longer applies, which will prevent their ideas or work from getting traction with anyone else. It’s likely that this gap will be more obvious than the other four you mention, but I would suggest looking for it last, as it usually indicates another underlying problem that CAN be fixed. If you are lucky, fixing the underlying problem and slowly rebuilding the employees reputation will catch.

Have you had any success in the more entrenched cases of this?

timrodgers - December 27, 2009

I agree that reputation can be a very difficult thing to improve, and even harder to repair. Once someone is labeled it becomes part of their informal biography, and subsequent actions tend to be shaded to fit the reputation. I think the manager plays an important public relations role here, helping to ensure that their subordinates are evaluated fairly (and I’m not just talking about the formal performance review process). If someone incorrectly blames a subordinate for a problem or failure, the manager should strive to set the record straight, thereby helping to ward off the “under-performing” label.

However, if it’s too late for prevention and the reputation has been established, then obviously a different strategy is needed. I can only think of two possibilities: (1) stubbornly stand by the subordinate, continue to give them challenging assignments that give them a chance to create an improved reputation, and work behind the scenes to persuade others that the subordinate has been inaccurately labeled and that their ideas deserve traction, or (2) help the subordinate find another job and a chance to make a fresh start in a new environment. The choice depends on how committed the subordinate is to their own rehabilitation. Somebody told me once that it’s not good when the manager cares more about the subordinate’s performance than the subordinate does.

Back to your question: I have used both of these strategies with some success. Of course if the reputation is legitimate and deserved, then you’re back to a regular garden-variety performance problem.

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