Episode Transcript

Hello everybody. I’m Steve Nathenson, CEO, and founder of Strive for More. In continuing with our conversation about leadership, I want to talk about a very pressing topic that’s come up a lot, especially during the pandemic, and that’s around poor performance. How do we deal with it? How do we help those that are performing not up to our expectations? That’s actually a great part of the question. Have we been clear on that with them? We’re going to get to that for us here in a moment. Let’s first talk about the fundamental part of it, is are they performing or are they not? What are we using to gauge that?

During the pandemic, with a lot of us being remote and even some of us that were remote beforehand, there’s a natural assumption of, I don’t see what they’re doing, they must not be doing anything. So the very first thing that I want to ask about today in terms of poor performers, are we presuming that someone’s not doing what’s being asked of them or do we actually know that to be true? There’s a fundamental difference in that question of truth versus assumption. I may not see what they’re doing and I may naturally think that they’re not doing anything. And that may lead me to think that they’re not performing. So part of that question around poor performance actually revolves around us, our assumptions. So, that’s the first question.

Are we just assuming that they’re not performing or do we have tangible facts that show that they’re not? Such as continually missing deadlines, poor work quality, not being collaborative with others or not being responsive. And is that a clear pattern of behavior over time or is it a one off instance? When we talk about poor performance, this is an important part of it. What shows us tangibly that that truly is the case versus assumptions? And is it something that is continual and an issue versus perhaps a one off? So that’s the first part about this.

The second part is also on us. As I mentioned before, have we clearly expressed what is truly expected of somebody? Do they have what they need from us to be successful? This is another question that does fall upon us as leaders. I share it because one of the most common things that we believe is clear but isn’t, is our expectations. It’s worth exploring, have I clearly expressed to them what is expected of them?

Let’s use somebody in customer service as a easy example. It may be expected that someone in that department resolves issues with customers within 24 hours. You may get, say, 100 inquiries a week as a company, and you have 10 people who will handle them, and it’s expected that they each do 10 incidents. That’s a very clear, tangible example. When do we expect you to reply to somebody within what timeframe and how many are we expecting you to close within a week? That’s a very tangible example. It’s not always that case, but it’s a good illustration for our point.

If we start shifting a little bit way into something that’s a little bit more intangible around, say reports or analyses, do we have a expectation in our minds that’s perhaps not shared of what should that look like? What should that include? And when we get that work product back, does it or does it not meet that expectation? And have we actually expressed that to people? Have we shared with them examples? Have we clearly talked through the level of detail, the type of language, the layout, the look of it, everything? Have we shared all of that with our folks? When we hire somebody who, say, has 15 years of experience, we may have a certain natural expectation of what they are able to do, the work quality and product that they produce and the way that they interact with others. That’s going to be up here in our minds. Have we shared that with them or do we just presume that they know what’s expected of them because they’ve been doing it for a while?

This can often clear things up if we have those conversations around our expectations and see if someone truly understands them or not. The assumptions we make, the expectations, there are a couple fundamental questions to ask around “poor performance”. What is it that we are doing that perhaps is leading to that?

Now for arguments sake and for the bulk of the rest of today, we’re going to talk about that is truly the case. Someone is not performing to expectations. We have been clear with them. They know what’s expected. It’s obvious in writing. It’s been talked about, and they are say, perhaps rude, they’re disrespectful. They’re not meeting the standards that are expected of them. And it’s a clear pattern of behavior. Let’s talk about that example, because that is one of the things that is the most difficult for us to deal with as leaders, and it’s a very common example unfortunately.

Every organization is going to have different guidance internally from your HR department, and that is one area that I would definitely defer to in terms of what your organization is going to ask of you in those situations. But typically as leaders, you’re going to need a documented pattern of behavior over time to be able to support certain administrative actions, such as putting somebody on a performance improvement plan, and perhaps even ultimately letting them go from the organization. That documentation is going to be needed.

As you go down that path, you may never actually be comfortable with that, and that’s okay. I want to say that again. You may never be comfortable with that and that’s okay. It’s not fun to put somebody on a performance improvement plan, to have to have the same conversations with them over and over again, and even let them go. We may never be comfortable with that and that is okay. What’s important is can we be as comfortable as we can be with it? Can we be confident in we’ve done everything we feel is reasonable for us to have done, and that we’ve tried everything that we’ve been able to try and that I feel is appropriate and acceptable to do so as a leader?

That’s one thing I want us to walk away with from today, is when I’m facing this situation as a leader, can I ultimately walk away from this situation knowing that I’ve done everything I feel is right and appropriate to do so, and I’m not left saying, “I wish I did more,” or, “I could have done more. I kind of dropped the ball on it”? Because when we do that, we will be as comfortable as we can be in these uncomfortable situations.

So, let’s explore that a little bit more and how to deal with it. When we face our poor performer, we’ve talked about the expectations and we’ve talked about a clear pattern of behavior. As we go into the conversations with them, if we just continue to point out things that are wrong, that they’re not doing and that they need to do, and we come at it at that aggressive me versus them angle, we’re going to break that apart even further. We’re going to cause dissonance, further the rift between us, and we’re not going to get to where we want to go. But if we fundamentally shift into truly exploring what’s it that I haven’t done yet? Have I not been clear? Am I making assumptions? Can I open this up to collectively with them find the way to bring them back into the fold and that I am on board to help them?

We can start bridging that gap, start creating creative collaborative paths forward that don’t put me against them, but rather bring us together and have a much better chance of overcoming the issues that are there and getting them to where we need them to be without having to, say, put them on a PIP or letting them go. Can we go into those conversations focused on what is it that we want to achieve together versus what is it that I need to convey to them and I need them to fix, and they’re not doing that they need to start doing? The way that we approach poor performance as a leader is going to have a drastic impact on the outcome that those conversations have and ultimately their performance.

So in the conversations, can we shift that focus? Can we open it up to them, reengage them by asking them questions? A lot of people who know that they’re not meeting performance, they want to fix it. They don’t necessarily want to fail. We don’t like doing that as human beings. So you may very well find that they are on board with fixing it, that they want that to get better, that they are willing to put time and effort and work into making that happen. And if they see that you’re truly on their side and it’s not just words, they are much more likely to actually do that. So how we have conversations with folks is a critical part of [inaudible 00:12:14] “poor performers”.

We talked about the mentality, how are you approaching the conversation? Language, we’re going to talk about this a lot more in depth later on in the season. But the language we use greatly impacts those that we lead and the conversations that we have with them. The word you creates defensiveness. The word why also creates defensiveness. So can we shift away from that language? Can we use collective language like we? Can we use I, and put forth your observations? What I see is versus you’re doing this, because there’s a tone that’s very authoritative, and quite frankly, derogatory and mean that comes across with, you’re not doing this, you need to fix this, let’s make that happen. Can we shift away from the language that’s naturally going to create us to further that rift versus bring it back? So the language leads.

One of the other things to keep in mind as well is when is best for them to have this conversation? When is best for me? Can I go into the conversation with a clear head? Can I do it in a time that I’m actually going to be open and engaging and they are as well? If I know, say, Friday mornings at 8:00 AM is a really bad time to talk to this person, let’s not set the conversation up for that time. Let’s do it at a time that we’re both going to be really receptive and open to having an engaging collaborative conversation. That’s another trick in there to help get people back on board.

As we have these conversations, part of what I talked about earlier in terms of our comfort, is at what point do we start feeling like we have extended us to the extent that we can, to what we think is reasonable and appropriate, and we start seeing a consistent pattern of behavior where this person may ultimately be in that category? And it’s few and far between, because a lot of people do want to get better. But what happens when they are truly in that category, like, I don’t care, whatever you’re going to say, it doesn’t matter, and nothing’s going to change? There is that real possibility.

I’ll use this as an example. As a coach, I could be the greatest coach in the world. Now I’m not saying that I am, but let’s just say for arguments sake, that I am the greatest coach in the world. If someone’s not open to having a conversation with me, I can’t help that person. It’s the same here with poor performers. If they are truly not open whatsoever and unwilling to change their attitude, to have conversations with us, we as leaders are not going to be able to help them. So in the rare instances that this is the case, what’s really important for me as a coach working with leaders is, are we comfortable with what we have tried? At what point do we embrace that I have done everything that I think is reasonable, that I think is appropriate and I’m comfortable doing before I have to take that unfortunate action of putting someone on a PIP or letting them go?

It’s not an easy thing for leaders to go through. It’s unfortunate that it happens, but it does happen. Can we embrace that we’ve done everything that we truly can so that we can feel like we’ve done what we can and we’re not left with regret? And can we embrace the fact that while we truly perhaps want to help everybody, bring them back, get that poor performance to where it needs to be, there are some times where that may not be possible. It’s an unfortunate part of leading others. We run into that from time to time.

So my challenge for us today, as we talk through this, is to look inward first. What assumptions am I making that may not be true? Have I clearly laid out what is truly expected and given people everything that they do need to be successful? As I enter into conversations with people, what am I perhaps doing that’s contributing to creating a rift and propagating that poor performance? These inward reflective questions can help us start breaking apart things that can lead to poor performance. And when we start telling them back, you’d be surprised at what comes from it, and where we can collectively go to get there.

And that last part is, what am I truly comfortable with? Where do I draw the line in terms of what I am willing to do to help people? It may be months. It may be a year. What am I comfortable doing? What does that actually look like? How many times do I want to have these kind of conversations with people? And can I be open to seeing the shift that does happen? Because as we remember, change takes time. Am I expecting things to turn around like that, or can I embrace that this is a process to help people turn it around and get to where they want to go? Am I giving it an appropriate amount of time? What does that look like for me? And knowing at what point do I see that this is something that does truly fall into that category of having to have a PIP and then ultimately perhaps being let go. Where are those boundaries? These things can help us more fruitfully deal with “poor performers”.

I hope you enjoyed today. I hope you took a couple things away today in terms of what can we do introspectively as leaders to first look at ourselves to help people overcome poor performance before we start looking at them, and knowing where our own boundaries lie and what we are doing perhaps that feeds into perpetuating that cycle. It can be hard to do that, but it is very, very rewarding. So until the next time, be the movement in your life.


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