How To Deal With Poor Performance

It’s a challenge that every leader has to face at some time within their career and that is when they have a team member who is not performing because they
11 Aug 2018 11:00
How To Deal With Poor Performance
Mark Wager

It’s a challenge that every leader has to face at some time within their career and that is when they have a team member who is not performing because they are just not good enough.

A leader is defined by the performance of the individuals within their team and when someone is not performing then that reflects on the leader.

Poor performance can’t be ignored, it has to be dealt with and here’s how.

Let me share with you a personal opinion of mine.

It’s not an opinion-based on research but it is one formed over many years of manag­ing poor performance myself and guiding leaders through how to manage poor per­formance and that opinion is that I don’t be­lieve performance plans work.

At least not in the way they are used cur­rently.

I believe performance plans are very good for creating a clear audit trail which is useful in exiting an individual from an or­ganisation but in terms of turning a poor performing team member into a good team member I don’t believe they work.

Here’s what you should do, maybe not in­stead of a performance plan but definitely before it is deemed necessary.

Deal with poor performance before it be­comes an issue.

So what should you do? Well here are a few tips

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – Confucius

The biggest obstacle with poor performers is that they rarely agree they are a poor per­former, in fact most believe it is the leader who is not doing their job correctly.

Research has shown that on average 32 per cent of employees rate themselves among the top five per cent performers within their organisation and around 93 per cent believe they are better than the majority of their colleagues.

The studies found that this false percep­tion of ones own ability becomes more false and more exaggerated the lower the perfor­mance of the individual.

This is what is known as the Dunning-Kru­ger Effect.

In 1999 social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote a paper called “Un­skilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The paper started because the psycholo­gists saw the case of McArthur Wheeler who robbed banks in the United States without a mask because he believed that by rubbing lemon juice on his face made him invisible to the surveillance cameras.

The study concluded that the more incom­petent a person is the less likely they are to be unaware of their own incompetence so your poor performers are unlikely to agree they are a poor performers.

They may sit there and agree and nod their head but they are unlikely to improve.

The Dunning-Kruger study also showed that people who were highly competent were also falsely influenced.

In these cases people who do well tend to as­sume the task they perform is easy so there­fore should be easy for others to perform.

This is a challenge for leaders especially if the leader has previously done the same role as the poor performer as the leader is likely to underestimate the difficulty of the tasks they are asking others to perform.


To deal with poor performance you need to start of by clarifying where the individual is not meeting the desired standards.

This has to be explained in a way that leaves no room for misunderstanding.

Remember, as stated above, the individual is unlikely to agree they are failing so avoid taking in judgments for example don’t say that someone is unprofessional or is not good enough because those statements are subjective and open to interpretation so in­stead focus on specific behaviours.

You did that specific behaviour when in­stead you should have done this.

It’s important that you are as specific as possible, this will seem unnatural the leader because people don’t have to talk to them this way but remember the study above you are underestimating the complexity of the tasks required.

When you hear some of the world’s top sport coaches in the world of Rugby and Football talk to the top players they have discussions in incredibly specific detail of what is required. For example: body move­ment and position on the punch because they know good performance only occurs when there is a joint understanding on what performance is currently happening and what is required – so a be specific.

Be on the same team

In any discussion about poor performance it’s easy for the employee to feel like they are being attacked and they are no longer part of the team when it should actually be the opposite.

Being told that you are not as good as you think you are can hurt, it’s akin to a sports team being booed by their own fans, rare­ly does the criticism turn a performance around instead in the majority of circum­stances it produces an even lower standard of performance.

As a leader you need your team member to realise that you are in this together, the poor performance is an issue for both of you to deal with.

In the past when I had to talk to a poor per­former the first thing I did was apologise, I felt my role as a leader was to give my team the tools and skills they needed in order to perform their duties to a high level and when they didn’t perform it was testimony of my own leadership abilities.

When I apologised the individual was not only surprised but also felt we were on the same side.

A negative situation turned into a positive one.

Offer solutions and not criticism

When I see good leaders in action they tell their team what they are doing wrong yet when I see great leaders in action they tell their team what they need to do in order to become better.

Good leaders don’t criticise instead they of­fer solutions.

What is easy for you may not be easy for others, it doesn’t mean others are not as smart or as good as you it just means they have a different skill set and have a different level of proficiency.

It’s not good enough to say“get better” or “do better” you have to offer solutions, you need to be able to explain the specific behav­iours they need to do in order to perform at a high standard.

If you can’t do this then you are not ready to have this type of performance discussion.

Too often I see leaders have a performance discussion only for the team member to walk away with no clear idea of what they need to do differently.

It’s rare that people go to work in order to do a bad job, nearly everyone wants to do a good job but they just don’t know how.

Make the consequences clear

Good leaders don’t fire people instead they allow people to get themselves fired.

Every morning you don’t get up and go around each of your team members hous­es and force them into a back of a van and drive them to work against their will, no of course you don’t.

People go to work because they are aware of the consequences of what happens if they don’t the same principle needs to apply on these discussions.

You need to make the team member fully aware of what will happen if the current situation is allowed to continue.

This can be a challenge for leaders. People don’t like giving others bad news, we don’t like making people feel bad so leaders are reluctant to explain what to them is obvi­ously the negative outcome of not changing but what is obvious to one person is not so obvious to others.

As a leader you have a duty to explain fully the consequences of people’s actions.

If you do this then this will happen, if you don’t do this then this will happen instead which will lead to, and so on.

Some people need to see the fire before they decide to change.

The role of the leader is to give everyone the skills and tools they need in order to perform their role to a high level, it’s not to make decisions for people on what they do at work.

We all have been blessed wth the gift of free will.

Everyone has to make a choice in life as to what they want to get out of it and the good leaders make people aware of the conse­quences of those actions and gives them the opportunity to become better but if people decide not to grasp those opportunities then that outcome rests with the individual and not the leader.


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