You may be a new manager in a company. After a while, you note a person or two who are not producing the results you want. You may have been transferred into a division or department that has not been performing with the mandate to clean it up and make it profitable again. You evaluate your workers and discover several who are not providing quality work for the company. You may have been a manager of a department for quite a while and, either by sheer enlightenment or a kick in the seat of the pants from someone higher up, you suddenly see problem performers that you have never seen before. In any case, you must now deal with the poor performer. Unfortunately, survey after survey shows that most employees do not get the feedback that they need to fix problem areas. In fact, most people who are shown the door or who have been "counseled" to resign have had stellar performance reviews right up to the end. Women, minorities, and older workers get the least feedback that they need. This issue is so sensitive that when a manager approaches a worker to discuss the discrepancy between manager expectations and worker performance, it may well be the first time the worker has been approached about it. So, how does one go about it? The Center for Creative Leadership, an international school focusing on leadership (specifically, their text, "For Your Information"), offers some guidelines.
Nine Steps to Confronting Direct Reports
- Creating & Communicating Standards - Unclear expectations, an inconsistent manager, an overwhelmed supervisor, a selective communicator, or a non-communicator may all contribute to confused performers who simply don't know your expectations. Unfortunately, the communication mistakes belong to the manager. It is your job to make your performance expectations crystal clear. Outline five to ten key results areas and indicators of their success. Then involve the direct reports in the standards and the indicators. Workers with clear standards are usually more hard on themselves than their superiors.
- Be Real - Many companies and agencies work on a 90-day improve-or-else plan. My district uses a 180-day plan, which can be modified to a shorter time frame if necessary. Both plans are not realistic. Since managers tend to avoid confronting people for low performance, they tend to get to problem workers late. By then it will take one to two years to rectify problems that contributed to the poor performance. Does your company demand you to be a 90-day miracle worker? Help them to realize that substantive human change takes longer than a quarter.
- Start the Process - The first meeting is tough and ugly. Get used to it. Remember, you will probably be the first person to bring up the direct reports shortcomings. These beginning meetings should be early in the week and in the mornings. They should never be in the afternoons, Fridays, or just before a holiday, when most managers tend to deliver bad news. I knew one worker whose supervisor called him in and informed him that, although he wasn't being fired right then, he should be "exploring options outside the company." She then wished him Happy Thanksgiving as he left. Use the term, "we", to convey that you are a part of the solution. Share quickly and succinctly that there is a problem to talk about and fix. You are working with a limited attention span that grows shorter as the meeting continues so be brief. Don't do a big build-up; get to it and get it over with. The report will probably already know the news is negative, so a long preamble makes it more of a torture than it needs to be. Pick a few key areas on which to concentrate. Keep to the facts and how they impact you and your department, division, or unit. Be specific in your discussion. Remember that human issues will always take longer than expected, so plan enough time so it is not a rushed process.
- Have a Plan - If you are going to criticize, have a plan ready. Don't point out errors and leave the report twisting in the wind while you develop a plan. Have it ready. Don't make him/her guess. Most of all, concentrate on the future, not the past. Steps to take should include both of you. In my district, the standard is that improvement plans should meet the PIA standard: That it is more of a Pain In the Ass for the supervisor than the report. You are a part of the solution. Help the report see the negative consequences that are looming and then, optimistically, show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Be positive, however, be firm.
- Get Ready for Resistance - There will be many reasons cited why your assessment is flawed. They may be shared with strong emotion as well. This is not necessarily a sign of denial; it is a natural human defense. Acknowledge their perception of the situation but don't get detoured on a tangent that takes you away from the plan of improvement. Delay to the following day, if you have to, the discussion of their view of the situation. Then, return to your agenda points. One very good strategy at this point is to schedule new work during the meeting, as it communicates that you have faith it will be completed well.
- DefCon Four - As stated earlier, expect high emotions. They are natural human responses to situations such as this. Prepare yourself for a variety of responses and steel yourself for any emotional outburst. Rehearse various negative scenarios mentally in order to be able to stand your ground when the heat goes up. Remain composed and avoid saying things that you will regret later. Venting is natural, so let it take place, whether its verbal rants or crying. When it has run its course, return to the issues. You can empathize with the person. You can help the person save face in some instances, which will improve the response you get from the report.
- The Next Day - Make an effort to visit the person on their ground. Probe for feelings and listen. Don't back off your main points, just listen. Again offer your help in the solution. Work on your relationship with the person and don't just leave them feeling alone. Your support can show the report that there is hope. Schedule checkpoints at which to evaluate progress on the improvement plan. Be sure, as the days go on, that you track progress. Be objective.
- The Two-Minute Warning - You've done your best. The plan has run most, if not all, of its course and there has been no improvement. You feel the person just isn't trying. It's time to lay the problem squarely on their lap and make them own it. Pull them aside and say something like, "I understand your views of this situation. I'm still here to help, but I have to ask, are you committed or not?" What ever the response, be clear; this is not the time for negotiation. Give the person a day or so to develop a real plan of improvement, but be prepared to act decisively if presented with an impotent plan.
- Good-Bye - If all else fails and the person has not been successful, it's time to say goodbye. Be sure that the person knows that their difficulty in performing adequately in this particular job doesn't mean they are less of a person. They, undoubtedly, have other talents and skills. Point this out to the report. Share what you think might be a better job match. Offer to do what you can to help the person transition to another job or company. If you are willing, offer a letter of reference. Make the good-bye meeting short, but make contact with them later to talk about the feelings aspect of the situation if the person is willing. Do what you can to provide a genuine parting gesture that says that you still value them as a person. A note, card, phone call, or dinner might convey that sentiment. Even if the offer is rejected, you will know that you have done all that you can do.