Understanding and Managing Poor Performance in the Workplace
When a team member is not performing as expected, what is the most useful action for a leader to take?
It feels as though many of the default leadership responses to seemingly poor or unacceptable performance tend to assume that the team member is “wrong”. What if, instead of responding to perceived poor performance by assuming that the team member is wrong, we sought to understand what might be happening for them?
Leaders are human and, as part of being human, we can easily find ourselves forming opinions about why a team member might be doing what they are doing. However, our opinions are how we are seeing the world in that moment. They are not necessarily how life really is, and they are not necessarily how the team member is seeing the world.
Leaders Understand why they are Taking Action
When someone seems to be performing in a way that does not meet our expectations, we tend to experience an emotional reaction to that behaviour (for example: anger, disappointment, frustration). If we don’t understand why we are experiencing that reaction, we run the risk of not understanding why we have assessed the performance to be unacceptable in the first place. A useful question in this case might be:
For the sake of what in the future am I assessing that the performance of this team member is poor or unacceptable?
Maybe we are concerned that the team member’s performance has the potential to impact the organisation in some way. Maybe, our reaction is more about our own feelings and ego. By understanding where our reaction is coming from, we can choose what opinions we want to give weight to.
Leaders Understand that Poor Performance is not Always Deliberate
It can be easy to assume that behaviours and actions of team members are deliberate. This, again, is only one interpretation in the moment.
What would it take to pause, accept that the team member is taking action in the best way that they know how from the emotional space that they are in, and then respect them for that? This doesn’t mean that we have to like their behaviour. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respond to their behaviour. It simply means that, rather than reacting and taking action from a point of judgement, we can hold the team member and ourselves as legitimate while we seek to understand what their experience really is and determine an appropriate way to respond.
Leaders Seek to Learn and Understand
We don’t know how the team member has interpreted the situation and what might be going on for them. This, I think, is where it is important that we have a conversation with the team member as soon as possible after it has been determined that a conversation is required. As part of being human, we are all operating from an emotional space and so we will be taking at least one emotion into a conversation with the team member. Similarly the team member will be doing the same. What emotional space would be most useful for us to have the conversation from? What emotional space might the team member may be operating from? If we have an understanding of these, we open ourselves up to choice.
Listening without judgement to the team member’s interpretation of events, and with a view of seeking to understand before taking action, is, I think, incredibly powerful. It has the potential to open up a number of possibilities that may not have been obvious to us, had we simply assumed that the team member was “wrong”.
Leaders Take Appropriate Action
As a result of the conversation, there will actions that are required to be taken. Perhaps there is a request of the perceived poor performer. Perhaps there are requests of the leader. Whatever the actions that come from the discussion, my opinion is that it is important that these actions be followed through, with the commitment managed in a timely manner and any outcomes clearly understood by all parties.
Bringing it all Together
In my opinion, perceived poor performance must be dealt with. However, for a solid and successful outcome, the action taken doesn’t have to come from the assumption that the team member is “wrong”. It may be that the most useful outcome is that the team member changes their behaviour. It may even be possible that the situation could benefit from the leader changing their behaviour, or some processes changing, or the workload shifting. It may be that, right now, the team member simply needs some support.
By holding the team member as legitimate and seeking to understand what is happening, we have a choice about the most useful next steps. If we simply assume that the team member is wrong, then we don’t necessarily give ourselves a choice in the actions that we take, and we also run the risk of losing an employee who may simply be in need of some understanding.