Managing for performance vs managing under-performance

People leadership throws up many challenges.  One of the most commonly expressed challenges is around the issue of managing under-performing staff.  But I’ve come to wonder over the years, in dealing with many people leaders, whether the issue sometimes stems from how the issue is even expressed…managing under-performance.  HR departments often have specific policies and procedures for managing under-performance, often informed by requirements of industrial agreements etc.  But, what if you just try this:

Replace the question…

How do I manage under-performance?

with this question:

How do I manage for performance?

what we see is what we are looking for

“What we see depends mainly on what we’re looking for.” Sir John Lubbock

In a practical sense it fundamentally shifts the thinking paradigm and opens up many more possibilities for action.  At a deeper level it is underpinned by a fundamentally different set of assumptions, or even set of beliefs, about people in the workplace and your role as a leader.

I’ve observed a couple of managers over the years that have had this epiphany and taken subsequent action with amazing results.

Example #1

One manager had been grappling with the question that we had posed to him as part of a leadership development program…when do people perform at their best?  As he thought about this question, conceptually in the first instance, he then started to think in practical terms about one of his specific staff members.  He was having some issues with her performance – she had previously been one of his better performing staff members, but over a lengthy recent period her performance had dropped off considerably.  In fact the manager felt he was on the cusp of having to manage under-performance. But when he explored the question of when do people perform at their best and thought specifically about this staff member he started wondering – maybe the work I’m asking her to do is not aligned with her motivations or ambitions, maybe her skills are not right for the tasks, maybe there’s some problems in her home life that I’m not aware of.  The upshot of his reflections was that he had a good chat with her to discuss her motivations, interests, skills and gave her some different projects and tasks to work on.  When speaking with him, about a month later, he just shook his head and said ‘I cannot believe the difference in her performance’.  He’d witnessed a dramatic positive change and was so surprised it could be achieved with a tweaking of the person’s work.  Now, just imagine if he’d gone down the typical under-performance route.  I suspect it would have simply become a self-fulfilling prophecy that would have been painful, emotionally exhausting and highly unproductive for everyone involved.  Sometimes you will only see what you are looking for.  A shift in mindset of the manager brought about a fundamentally different result.

Example #2

Another manager had been putting quite a bit of effort into managing under-performance of a particular staff member.  She had tried setting more specific expectations, clearer articulation of deliverables and timeframes and more frequent and regular monitoring of delivery.   However she wasn’t making a lot of progress and was not seeing much improvement – she just had a sense that the situation was not really going anywhere.   In a moment of reflection, the manager asked herself a question – one that is not often asked by managers – What if it’s me?  How have I, as manager, contributed to this person’s underperformance?  She wondered whether she had really tapped into her staff member’s motivations.  As a consequence of her reflections she sat down with her staff member and together they explored the things that were important to her and better ways of working that were more attuned to how she liked to work.  Again the manager observed a fundamentally positive turnaround in this person’s work performance after taking this action.

Of course these are only a couple of stories and you will not be always able to achieve such turnarounds.  But…importantly the starting point was the manager reflecting on what they needed to do to get the best performance out of the person, rather than seeing the individual as ‘the problem’.  They came from the assumption that everyone has something of value to offer as opposed to assuming that the individual was an under-performing ‘no-hoper’.  In some cases it may be more of an issue of role fit – then the challenge is to help them to find a role better suited to their skills and motivations.  Ideally managing under-performance should be the absolute last port of call.  Next time you are confronted with the challenge of an under-performing staff member, seriously ask the question how do I manage for performance?

Link to practical ideas list – diagnosing underperformance