Cards on the table

by Iain Hopkins13 Jun 2013
In many ways, the actions taken to resolve an issue will rely on the accurate diagnosis of the problem. This may also determine how much time and energy should be devoted to the underperformer. An astute manager – or one accustomed to having meaningful conversations with staff – should be aware of external factors. Tammy Tansley, principal at Tammy Tansley Consulting, suggests that if underperformance is related to an external issue such as a family crisis, and that employee has been a valued employee up until that time, then the decision might be that it is worth sticking with the employee and offering them support for a period of time while they are sorting out their situation. 
The other consideration is that this process is not a one-way street. The employee isn’t passive in this process. It should be a two-way process and conversation in which both parties are able to honestly reflect on the situation and the impact it is having, and agree to steps to change. 
“It’s critical that the employer doesn’t take on all the responsibility here – the employee needs to acknowledge the situation and actively accept that they need to take steps to address the situation,” Tansley says.
“Having an honest dialogue will mean that – within a framework of what is legally acceptable – it’s easier to have a ‘cards on the table’ conversation which can help both parties decide when it’s time to part ways.”
If there is no willingness or acceptance of the issues by the employee, no amount of coaching, support or other interventions will address the situation. Equally,  there are times when there is just a mismatch in role, organisation and person, and no development or support is going to change that. 
In either of these situations, managing the employee out of the organisation can be an appropriate response.
A recent finding in Mercer’s 2013 Global Performance Management survey shows that the one area of manager capability that, if improved, would have the biggest impact on improving performance management is the enhancement of candid dialogue. This is followed by the ability of the manager to link performance to development planning. Unfortunately, these findings point to the current reality that many frontline managers do not possess the skills to handle difficult conversations, nor do they have the ability to identify development needs and put in place a robust plan to manage these. 
What’s responsible for this capability gap? Firstly, many organisations still typically promote frontline managers based on the high performance they have delivered in  their roles as individual contributors. As research has repeatedly shown, the profile for success as a manager is quite different to the capabilities required to succeed as an individual contributor or technical specialist. This issue has been exacerbated by the fact that, following the global financial crisis (GFC), a  ‘thinning out’ of the talent pool has occurred through forced redundancies and layoffs. This has further increased the probability of the successful  individual contributor moving into frontline management ranks. Secondly, in order to protect short-term profits post-GFC, organisations have typically curtailed investment in this area. Adams notes that most of the investment in leadership development, up to and since the GFC, has been directed at top leadership levels, and the momentum to cascade leadership development to frontline managers has more or less been halted. 
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Dentesano has noticed a change in the “language of leadership”, whereby managers and leaders are being held to account to coach, support and build capability in their teams. As a leader, she says, you have accountability to give people feedback on how they’re going, and most people struggle with telling someone they’re not doing the right thing or not delivering on the standards required. “It’s a development skill required to actually be able to cite an example and use that example in the moment to provide feedback and look at different ways of achieving a better outcome,” she says. 
Technology is playing an important role in improving performance management processes, making them more user-friendly and less paper intensive. Mercer’s 2013 study shows that 56% of organisations are using technology that goes beyond Word-enabled forms. However, Adams says performance-management-related change and improvement initiatives are often too narrow when the focus is just on improving the appraisal system and associated processes. In the end, the change experience and the end result feel more like a compliance-led exercise. Instead, performance management should place less emphasis on the process and more on the conversations between manager and employee that will ultimately move the needle on workforce performance and capability development. 
Good performance management happens every day. That’s the theory. Indeed, Tansley says there are great examples of organisations that have done away with formal appraisal processes because their regular feedback and other organisational processes are so effective that they’re not needed. Yet, for most companies, it’s the execution that lets them down. It’s not unusual for managers to save their grievances with their employees until the annual or bi-annual review. That’s too late, says  Dentesano. “There should be no surprises,” she notes.
She adds that there is a cultural element involved, whereby organisations provide performance feedback every day, or once a year. “Where it’s done every day there’s obviously a good communication process; there’s a good coaching mindset and an openness to learning. Where it’s done once a year and people are briefed on how to do it with a list of steps to follow, I think they’re putting themselves in a difficult position as leaders and not giving their team an opportunity to benefit from real-time learning and development.”
Dentesano also believes there are too many measures and often people can’t see the connection between the measures on their performance scorecard and their job, and what the organisation is trying to achieve. For example, where an organisation is looking for a service outcome, how is that tied back to the outcomes for an individual? “The alignment piece is critical. Then there’s the problem of too many measures. Once you get past five, I think people start getting blurry-eyed and lose interest,” she says.
A list of out-of-context metrics or numbers to reach doesn’t mean a thing to an employee. Context is critical: if Mary understands why she’s being measured against something and how it impacts on her day-to-day job, as well as how it manifests itself in terms of the company’s achievements, it’s suddenly more relatable.
Dentesano says it’s also crucial to be clear on consequences, especially if formalised performance management is taking place. “Under legislation you can’t just one day show up and say, ‘Sorry, you’re doing a bad job – there’s the door’. You have an obligation to articulate what the requirements are, and an obligation to provide some support and development to get to the point of achievement. You must also have a reasonable timeframe – and that’s very discretionary,” she says.
There is unquestionably a cost to not managing poor performance. When the culture of an organisation is discussed, it’s commonplace to talk about it being defined by the systems, symbols and behaviour that are manifested in the organisation. It follows that when an organisation allows poor performance to continue, it becomes the accepted norm. “Before you know it you could have an organisation of underperformance, because it’s not dealt with,” says Dentesano. 
There can be one other damaging repercussion. If underperformance is not being managed, people will typically start questioning the capability of the leader. “People start saying, ‘Why does Rosemary continue to let Betty not hit her targets every month? What is it about Betty that makes Rosemary not manage her?’ It undermines the leader,” Dentesano explains.
As a final tip, it’s worthwhile considering and positioning feedback as a gift. It may not seem very ‘gift-like’ at the time but, with time to reflect, an honest, transparent, respectful conversation about performance can be the best thing that ever happened to the recipient. Perhaps the employee has hidden potential that is yet to be uncovered or they are experiencing a personal issue that is significantly affecting them and their performance. Perhaps they just need someone to point them in another direction or suggest an alternative.
“If treated respectfully and fairly, an organisation may, at best, turn a poor performer around into a productive and positive member of the organisation or, at worst,  may avoid or prevent litigious action or damage to the organisation’s brand and reputation,” Adams concludes.

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