Cards on the table

by Iain Hopkins13 Jun 2013
HR is frequently asked to fix performance issues by providing training, when systemic, deeper issues are at play. Iain Hopkins looks at some root causes of poor performance, and what can be done to improve the situation
 
“So…tell me how you think you are performing in your role.” For what it’s worth, if a conversation about underperformance needs to occur, that’s one of the better ways to open it. It immediately throws the onus on to the employee to reflect on what level they feel they’ve been operating at. And if it’s a deluded self-view, then it’s time for management instincts to kick into gear. There’s no question that managing poor performance is a tricky area, yet it need not be ‘the event’ loathed by both employee and manager. It must be remembered that, on the whole, most people don’t show up to work to purposely do a bad job. It’s therefore critical for managers to uncover the root cause of poor performance and determine whether an employee can be turned around.
 
A NEW ERA?
While it’s probably never going to be high on a manager’s list of ‘most desired’ tasks, there are subtle shifts taking place in terms of performance management in recent times. Instead of sweeping poor performance ‘under the carpet’, it’s being confronted more readily than in the past.
 
Rosemarie Dentesano, practice leader for Right Management in Aus/NZ, notes that in many – not all – organisations, there’s talk of ‘non-negotiable accountabilities’ when it comes to performance. This pressure is coming on two fronts: cost management, and finding productivity improvements.
 
One way to improve productivity is to improve performance – hence there’s sharper focus on getting the right people for the right roles and setting the bar high to start with. Expectations have also changed. CEOs are being clearer on expectations and about performance being important. And where it was once just the CEO and top brass being raked over the coals for underperformance, now everyone in the organisation is expected to deliver on strategy. “It’s becoming harder to hide, so to speak, and there’s a need to perform and deliver,” says Dentesano. “We’re seeing changing work models and practices which are requiring people to step up and perform.”
 
Dentesano does concede that the reluctance of the past to deal with underperformance is still lingering, but this is changing. “There was a hesitancy to deal with it, because it requires a concentrated effort, it requires people to be honest and requires good leadership to set the parameters and then monitor and measure it, and evaluate it. Quite often leaders are good at setting the parameters and not so good at holding people to account. So there’s a change in the market around accountability and people getting serious about managing performance,” she says.
 
WHAT’S THE ROOT CAUSE?
The causes of poor performance are multifaceted. Garry Adams, talent business leader at Mercer, says poor performance is fundamentally a systemic issue “where addressing and indeed preventing it relies on the integration of an organisation’s people practices while at the same time making sure they reflect and support what the organisation is trying to achieve”. 
 
It’s like interlocking puzzle pieces: an organisation’s recruitment and hiring practices need to acquire the right people, with the right skills, in the right locations; their capability development programs must be relevant and structured to be delivered in a timely and efficient way; and the employees are effectively managed on a daily basis throughout the year via regular, robust and meaningful conversations backed up by effective consequence management or one-on-one coaching interventions. Repeatedly, research shows that high-performing organisations are the ones that manage and deliver these practices well.
 
Yet it’s also conducive to look at specific causes of poor performance. Top of the list must be a person’s skill capability and motivational interests not matching the requirements of the role – essentially resulting in a job/person mismatch.
 
“Through the person being in the wrong job, they struggle to deliver on the accountabilities of the role,” Dentesano tells HC.
 

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