Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Confronting Poor Performance

Dear Crucial Skills,

I supervise an employee who appears to be struggling with her responsibilities. We upgraded our software systems several years ago, and she still does not understand how the software works. In the past two years, I have received many phone calls and e-mails from customers and coworkers regarding their concerns with her. I have addressed these problems with her and have also written up a performance improvement plan. However, she still hovers on the line between employment and unemployment. What more can I do?

Struggling with Responsibility

Dear Struggling,

What a question! There are levels and flavors within this question that are intriguing (and ever so pervasive) at work and at home. Of course, the main issue here is accountability.

Over the years, as we’ve consulted with managers to work on accountability skills and with teams to build a culture of accountability, we’ve noted the following:

  • In low performing cultures, people don’t hold others accountable.
  • In good performing cultures, supervisors (or people with power) hold others accountable.
  • In the best performing cultures, everyone can and does hold everyone else accountable.

That distinction is key for a couple of reasons. When even a few low performers are not held accountable, the standard drops for everyone. “Oh yeah,” say colleagues, “Our written standards are A, but our real standards are A minus twenty percent.” Also, performance management systems alone cannot deal with performance gaps. Systems are necessary, but not sufficient. Real-time accountability is the responsibility of every person and is done the moment it’s needed. High, clear standards and real-time accountability from everyone is the key to a healthy culture.

Your direct report has a performance gap. You have followed a process. You have talked to her and even written her up. Given what you’ve shared in your question, here are a couple of suggestions.

  • Make sure the expectations are clear. Clarity is needed on the process, steps or behaviors, and on the outcomes and results.
  • Don’t underestimate people’s need for training. People are excellent at masking ability problems. Does this employee need additional skill building? Are there any other barriers that are causing her to not perform? Too often, managers try to motivate employees when the real problem is an issue of ability. So make sure you’ve looked at her skills and knowledge. Make sure she can do the process is essential.
  • Clarify the consequences and then follow through. One of the biggest concerns I had as I read your question is this statement: “In the past two years…” This problem has gone on for too long. People often assume that to be nice they need to work on an issue for a long time. Not so. If you’ve clarified expectations, made sure she is capable, and removed barriers, then you need to help motivate her.
  • Motivate with natural consequences. After you have shared with her what her low performance has done to suppliers, customers, colleagues and to you, you need to start a discipline process. This process often includes probation, suspension without pay, and then termination. A fair and patient process gives people the clarity, the support, and the time they need to improve. If they don’t improve, they need to be let go. Avoiding the consequences is not positive for you, the company, or for your direct report. When people do not perform, when they feel stressed because they can’t do the job, it’s not helpful to them to keep that job. It is better for them to find a job that matches their abilities and their motivation. So this last step is often not only essential for the company, it is the best step for the employee. /LI>

Thank you for your question. And best wishes to all who are working to improve accountability, at work and at home.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

4 thoughts on “Confronting Poor Performance”

  1. Susan Cottey

    I appreciate your steps for management to deal with an employee’s low performance, but it seems that one thing was overlooked. Do others have problems with the system too? Some of this is covered in your additional training comment, but could it be that the system isn’t working. Either the software or the process that the office is using? And how could that be analyzed?

  2. Cheryl Forbes

    Thank you for this very uplifting article. After walking away from a job that treated me poorly because I could not keep up with all they wanted me to do, I have been beating myself up and scared to move on. Now, I realize that training was sparce at best, the manager used my suggestion to update a process that wasn’t working, as “negative toward the company”. They expected two people to do the work of what used to be four and the clients knew they were being rushed through. At first, I thought it was my age but now I know, it was too much power at the top and not enough listening to the scared employees. Thanks, again. Cheryl

  3. Laura Moen

    I found this scenario to be a familiar one from many places and experiences. One thing I find myself wondering about is the fact that the employee’s co-workers are aware of her difficulties; from your brief description, it sounds as though they have commented to you without attempting to assist her. However, I may not be clear on what you meant; do I have this right? Would the other employees normally help one another and this type of behavior is specific to the employee in question (indicating another issue you should perhaps deal with in your workplace)or would nobody be willing to help anyone else (also a problem that would need attention)? Sometimes peer mentoring in different areas/skills can be a helpful way of working out situations like these, but I would be cautious about implementing them without assessing the interpersonal relationships and office culture first – you might need some preparatory work for everyone (including yourself) before you put something like that in place. Overall, though, I agree that two years is too long for this to have gone one.

  4. Margaret

    I have found myself in this situation, but as a co-worker to the employee that is performing poorly. We work as a very integrated team, and this co-worker has been trained, mentored and repeatedly re-trained on the processes we depend on him to do. He is actually responsible for the simplest processes the team performs because we have found he does not follow through on the details. Our manager has excused his performance, saying “at least he’s a body”, and has refused to assign him work that would require responsibility to detail. This puts a strain on the rest of the team to take up this extra work. We also have to “babysit” the work he performs for potential errors that would affect our assignments. The rest of the team members and myself are frustrated by his low performance and our manager’s refusal to hear anything negative about his work, even though she is well aware of the issue. We are at a loss to understand her consideration towards him at the expense of the rest of the team. Our productivity as a team has declined due to this situation. We are trying to wait out for the negative comments from users, because we have heard the complaints first hand, but I believe these are quashed at our managers level. This has been going on for 2 years, and even though I like my job and my manager, this causes such stress, that I consider moving on.

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