How to tackle poor performers

7 Oct 11
In times of change and uncertainty, individuals’ performance can suffer. Your challenge as a manager in the public sector is to minimise the consequences of this and help all your team fulfil their potential. Pam Jones explains how
By Pam Jones | 1 October 2011

In times of change and uncertainty, individuals’ performance can suffer. Your challenge as a manager in the public sector is to minimise the consequences of this and help all your team fulfil their potential. Pam Jones explains how

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The changes facing the public sector are resulting in new targets, processes and ways of working. People are expected to be more flexible, work across boundaries and be willing to adapt and develop their skills.

For some, this is a positive experience. They rise to the challenge and thrive on the opportunities this creates. For others, it can be a difficult time. They might struggle with the changes to their existing role and with new relationships and ways of working.

This creates the potential for performance to suffer, particularly if people don’t know what is expected of them, feel uncertain about their role and believe they do not have the skills and resources to achieve in the new environment. Your role as a manager is to recognise when performance is dipping and try to turn the situation around before it becomes a deep-seated problem.

The ten tips below will help you to make change easier for your team and ensure that everyone can perform to their potential.

1. Be clear what you mean by good performance
The first challenge in preventing or improving poor performance is to ensure staff know what you expect of them. Explain clearly the performance standards they need to meet. These should cover both ‘hard’ standards, such as targets and deliverables, and, very importantly, ‘softer’ aspects, which focus on the behaviour and attitudes associated with the role. Make sure you communicate and agree these with each team member.

2. Don’t avoid tackling issues
Often we let performance issues drift and hope they will sort themselves out. But think for a moment about the consequences of not tackling the situation. One person’s slipping performance will affect team morale. Others will notice that their colleague is not working effectively and might even need to cover up for them. It will lead to a drop in quality and, worst of all, an acceptance of lower standards of performance, which will become more difficult to deal with in the future.

3. Nip problems in the bud
The secret is to tackle performance issues early. The metaphor of sand in an hour glass is a good one to think about. It’s much easier to catch the grains of sand as they fall through than to deal with a pile of sand at the bottom of the glass. Most people do want to perform well and might not be aware of the impact of their behaviour. It is much better to deal with issues as they arise before they become entrenched. As a manager you will also be establishing some clear boundaries around what is expected in the team.

4. Explore the reasons
It is important to find out the causes of declining performance. This is especially so in the changing environment in the public sector. Many factors can influence the situation, including lack of skills, knowledge and clarity about the role, changes in the team, your leadership style, motivation, confidence, fear of change, stress and pressure, as well as problems and issues outside work. By exploring the underlying reasons, you can come up with a strategy for turning the situation around.

5. Listen to the staff concerned
Understanding what is influencing a person’s drop in performance requires you to listen carefully to them. This is not about accepting excuses, but trying to uncover how to move forward. You will need to listen not just to the words they are using, but also to the tone and body language. This will help you to pick up on any underlying issues and assess their commitment to improve. By listening and asking questions, you can work together to create a strategy to put the performance back on track.

6. Provide specific feedback
You will need to provide clear feedback that focuses on behaviour and actions rather than on broad statements that focus on personality. For example, do not use generalisations such as: ‘You have a bad attitude’. Instead, give specific examples of the behaviour that needs to change, such as: ‘I notice that when you are talking to clients on the phone you are often quite abrupt.’ Another tip is to also focus on what the individual is doing or did well in the past, for example: ‘The stats analysis you do is excellent, we just need to focus on how to work more effectively with dept x.’ This can help to build the confidence the individual needs to commit to improving their performance.

7. Set clear improvement targets
Giving specific feedback to staff makes it easier to focus on the actions and targets for improvement and identify the outcome you want. What will be different when performance has improved? Once you are clear about the outcome, it will be easier to think about how you will measure improvement and recognise that progress has been made.

8. Monitor progress
Poor performance doesn’t change overnight so you will need to monitor progress on a regular basis, looking at what is improving and what else needs to happen. It is always good to document what you need to do and to set some timescales so that you both know what has been agreed. It is also good to have a written record just in case the situation deteriorates into disciplinary action.

9. Provide support
Building up the performance of team members will require support from you and others. If there is a skills gap, appropriate training and coaching will be necessary and perhaps support from other team members. You might need to be clearer about your expectations and standards. You will also probably need to be a little more hands-on at this stage until performance is back on track.
10. Don’t label people, aim to build good performers
One final message is: don’t label people as ‘poor performers’. If you do, you can easily create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most people’s performance will drop below par at some stage in their life, and this is especially so in times of change and uncertainty. Your role as a manager is to build good performance and help people through the difficulties they face so that as a team you can all work to your full potential.

Pam Jones is a director of Ashridge Business School’s ‘Performance through people’ programme and the author of Managing for performance, published by Pearson Prentice Hall


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