How to manage a poor performer

Author: PM editorial | Date: 2 Mar 2016

Giving honest feedback is important, whether it’s good or bad

No matter where they are, line managers and HR professionals find discussing poor performance a nerve-wracking affair. But if you work in a culture where it’s frowned upon to confront people, tackling the issue can be even harder.
“Managing poor performance in this region is the biggest challenge. People struggle to give honest feedback – they don’t want to embarrass the other person,” says Tom Raftery, director of Dubai-based HR consultancy It’s All About People.
Marjola Rintjema, lead consultant, communication and change management for Towers Watson in Dubai, agrees: “Dealing with underperformance involves confronting people. In Middle Eastern cultures, this can be considered as making someone lose face, which you should avoid. Many companies implement elaborate performance management systems that include forced distribution, KPIs and competency ratings, but they do not improve manager-employee interactions. While it certainly helps to have a robust performance management system, it will not be effective unless you work on the feedback and communication skills of your managers.”
The good news is that having these tricky conversations is something managers can practice. “Agreeing targets, giving feedback and handling resistance are all trainable skills. With guidance and practice, managers can greatly improve their effectiveness in managing their team’s performance,” she adds.
One thing that can make tackling poor performance easier is having performance-related conversations more than once or twice a year – a situation that can be difficult for employees. “It is hard not to become defensive if a year’s worth of feedback is suddenly released and specific examples are lacking or obsolete,” says Rintjema.
She suggests focusing on specific, observable behaviour and results, keeping to your own observations and opinion, and providing recommendations for improvement. “Accept that no one likes negative feedback and give the person some time to digest it,” she says.
For Raftery, it can help to get underperforming staff to recognise the problem through analysing their own actions or work. “Ask them to critically analyse it themselves and then say ‘here are my observations’. Sometimes they don’t know, so part of it is saying ‘have you considered looking at it this way?’, rather than ‘you have got that wrong and you need to do it this way’.”
Helping an employee to improve their performance might involve extra training, coaching or mentoring from a more experienced colleague. Another tool is to set objectives and allow them to be involved in the process. “If people don’t feel their objectives are relevant and feasible, they will not be inclined to improve,” Rintjema says. “Involving the employee helps empower them to get better.”
However, while it is important to motivate employees, Rintjema believes managers should not be afraid to discuss a change in employment once all other options have been explored. “If as a manager you don’t believe improvement is possible, it may be better to start discussing other positions inside or outside your organisation. As difficult as this is, it is fairer than letting someone believe they have a future in their current role. If, however, you think the employee can improve, showing them you believe in them is crucial to their self-confidence and motivation.”
Raftery agrees: “Look at how you can energise them around their strengths using positive psychology, but if they have weaknesses consider how you can minimise those. Give them every chance and take them through verbal and written warnings and, if that doesn’t work, get them out of the business.”