Confront poor performers: Encorage employee accountability

“I recently was appointed to a new job, regional sales manager, at the company I’ve worked at for nearly ten years. As I entered the job, my new boss told me there were a couple of performance issues he needed me to address right away. He told me I had to fire a sales representative who was a thorn in everyone’s side, although her sales numbers were okay. There were two other employees he wanted me to put on performance improvement plans (PIPs), because they weren’t performing up to par. He said that he didn’t want me to think he was dumping this on me – the previous regional sales manager just never got around to it. Well, I did feel dumped on and while I did what he told me to do, this should have been a warning signal, because these were only the first items on what has become a lengthy clean list that he’s handed me. Can you offer some advice for what I can do to address the situation?”

For the record, I agree with you. You were dumped on. Sounds to me like your boss and the previous sales manager were unable or unwilling to engage in proactive, confrontive performance management. While no one necessarily likes being the bearer of the bad news, failing to address performance shortfalls is a slippery slope. Hoping that performance will improve or that negative behaviors will diminish simply is not the way to go. Rather, a targeted, focused approach to performance management must be pursued.

The ability to successfully tee up the tough talks is something that separates effective from ineffective leaders. Basically, there are three ways to address issues, topics, or situations that are unpleasant, provocative, etc. You can …

  • Avoid them – Rather than confront the situation, you can avoid it, ignore it, work around it, etc. This appears to be how the performance situations you reference had been handled prior to your arrival.
  • Handle them poorly – This approach often takes the form of confrontational, aggressive, or passive-aggressive methods along the lines of “I win, you lose,” or “I lose, you lose.” The underlying problem is not addressed and the feelings of one or both parties remain upset.
  • Handle them well – From my vantage point, this is the only way to go. The idea is to address superordinate issues (i.e., matters that both parties can agree to) and specify a course of action that is problem solving in nature and specifies the role of each party in implementing the solution strategy and the evaluative criteria that will be used to gauge progress (or lack thereof) moving forward.

Now, in your situation, you have been dealt a certain hand by your boss and told to play it. To refuse to carry out his directives probably was not an option, given that you were just entering your new role. So, carrying out the termination of one employee and implementing performance improvement plans with two others probably had to be pursued. At the same time, though, there is an opportunity in all of this to do some clarifying and calibrating about the scope of the clean up agenda he wants you to pursue and the process or methods you will use to do so, moving forward.

My counsel is as follows:

  • Familiarize yourself with the company’s policies and guidelines for performance appraisal and performance management.
  • Share your understanding of No. 1, above, with your boss, outlining the approach you would like to use, in the future, with employees who are under-performing.
  • Clarify, within the context of a team/work area business plan, the roles and responsibilities that attach to positions within the team.
  • Relative to No. 3, spend some time gathering information and feedback about how each team member is performing.
  • Meeting with each member of the team and the team as a whole to share your report card of findings and observations.
  • Looking ahead, engage in some “SMART” goal setting (i.e., specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and relevant, and time-driven) with the team and the team members.
  • Emphasize the managerial hats of monitor and mentor by offering timely feedback that is authentic and proportionate and that measures the gap between expected and observed performance.
  • Over time do your best to build a culture of accountability by encouraging multi-level assessment comprised of self-assessment, peer-assessment, and boss-assessment.
  • Become a feedback fanatic by using the magic ratio of 5:1 (i.e., five positives for every one negative . . . less than 2:1 is too little positive feedback, more than 12:1 is too much).
  • Calibrate your approach by seeking feedback from the employees you are managing and based on your accumulating experience.

In the final analysis, my sense is that you are entering into something of a performance vacuum. The Gallup Organization has documented that the majority of U.S. workers indicate they receive no feedback, positive or negative, on an annual basis. Sounds to me like your work area might exemplify that finding.

Yet, you do have the chance to set a new tone, moving forward. Why not do your best to turn your clean up efforts into a situation where accountability for performance becomes everyone’s job? After all, accountability starts with self-accountability. When employees hold themselves accountable, they are more credible in holding their peers accountable. And, if all teammates are accountable to themselves and to one another, when the manager offers feedback, he or she is simply giving voice to performance observations that are already well known. No surprises here!

Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.OD-Consultants.com). He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com

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