The Urgency of Dealing with Poor Performance

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues

(Part 1 of 3)

When I shared the following story with my business partner, he had a strong reaction. He feels Robert represents an extreme that readers will not relate to. I, on the other hand, have heard many Robert-type tales lately and think situations like his are happening way too often in the corporate world. Am curious to hear your thoughts. This is a true story with names changed to protect privacy…

Robert Stephens had a rotten Christmas season.

His story began 10 months earlier when his company hired Juan, who was super to work with the first few weeks.

Then, a management change at the company ushered in a new set of rules and procedures that Juan did not agree with. Robert explains, “In a matter of four months, Juan went from ‘team lead’ to ‘complaint factory’. He complained we did not motivate him, but he would not tell us what was demotivating him. He complained the job was too hard, and he was too busy to do all the projects on his plate. We worked with him, because he really was the best we had at one point, but the more we made concessions, the more he complained. This was around July, and I did not confront him about the impact of his communication on team morale.”

The noble excuse

“You see,” Robert continues, “I am a non-Spanish speaking manager who manages staff in Latin America. I did not want to appear too mean, or yes, too American. Just last year, one of the staff had noted that American managers yell and punish. I wanted to dispel that stigma. I did not want to seem insensitive to the needs of people who do work hard and are very sweet and hospitable.”

What seemed like a noble mindset quickly landed Robert in a managerial quagmire. By September, Juan was regularly giving incorrect and incomplete answers to customer questions, and Robert began fielding numerous customer complaints. Robert notes, “Customers were losing trust in our company, because they did not trust the answers we were giving them. And Juan did not want to be corrected. Juan left more work for others on the staff to deal with, and as nice as they were, they were afraid to tell me. I didn’t realize that employees doubted my ability to lead.”

Attention: loose elephant in customer service

There was now a paper trail of documentation and lost customers to support terminating Juan’s employment, but Robert still did not act. Juan’s performance continued to deteriorate. The final straw came in December. Four different customer complaints in one day, all related to Juan, landed on Robert’s desk to deal with. Juan would not own that he had made these errors, nor was he even slightly apologetic.

“I felt terrible firing him so close to Christmas,” says Robert. “Team morale worsened a bit because I took this action so close to the holidays. And now, I find myself having to prove to people above and below me that I do in fact know how to be a manager. I finally took action because I realized the business was suffering. The managers above me helped me see this.”

As extreme as this story may sound, similar situations—perhaps more subtle or seemingly less destructive—are playing out at many other companies.

My next post will look at the top 13 reasons managers let poor performance linger. And a third installment will look at how to make “the discussion” smoother if you ever find yourself needing to confront an employee like Juan.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you. What are the best onboarding and performance management practices you have seen that give managers the incentive and support they need to confront damaging behavior in a timely manner?

Note to readers: If you found this post interesting and if you are a manager, we could use your input for a research study on management styles. To participate, just complete the questionnaire at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com. All managers who take part will receive a free personal report outlining the strengths and limitations of their current management style, with suggestions to improve effectiveness. Thanks, in advance, for helping us with this study.

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Lisa Petrilli  |  24 Feb 2011  |  Reply


I have the privilege of working with a number of inspiring CEOs at the CEO Connection, and in regular meetings held throughout the year they consistently say that their biggest mistake is not dealing with talent issues immediately; not letting people go as soon as it’s clear they’re having a negative impact on the company, customers and on other employees.

How you lead and manage employees is directly related to values – and if you’re enabling poor behavior that impacts your customers and the rest of the culture, then it says poor things about what your values really are. I think great leaders understand this (I know the CEOs I work with do) – although that doesn’t make it easier to make these tough decisions. :)

Thanks for sharing your story,
Lisa Petrilli

Chuck Hebert  |  24 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Wow! Almost seems like the manager should be getting a poor performance rating for failing to take care of Juan here.

From an onboarding perspective, I’ve often found the best way to deal with performance issues is to set the stage on goals and expectations early in the job. This way, when the performance takes a dip, you can both go back to the expectations of the job and see where they are falling short.

From a performance management perspective, my personal philosophy is that performance management is a year-round activity. Having discussions about performance throughout the year is critical to staying on top of these performance issue. It also gives the manager the ability to tweak the expectations as the bussiness environment changes.

Staying on top of goals and expectations, documenting them, getting agreement and having regular dialog can helps take some of the emotion out of the discussion. (seems like this story is full of emotion). The more fact-based, the better.

Leigh Steere  |  24 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Lisa, thanks for taking the time to comment. Hopefully, this series of posts will nudge and equip managers who have been postponing “the discussion” with a poor performer.

Sometimes, the issue is not a manager’s values but rather a misapplication or mistranslation of a value. For example, the desire to be kind is a fine value. But if the manager thinks being “kind” means being “non-confrontational,” then the resulting behavior can create damage in the workplace. In this illustration, the manager needs to learn that a performance discussion is a kind act (both for the poorly performing employee and the team)–and that it does indeed fit with the manager’s values better than letting poor performance slide.

Leigh Steere  |  24 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Chuck, I appreciate your comment, too–particularly your points about setting goals/ expectations up front and viewing performance management as a year-round activity.

I think too many organizations still consider performance management as a once-a-year task instead of an ongoing process. An ongoing process creates natural opportunities for the manager to talk with employees about performance shortcomings in a timely manner.

“Robert,” by the way, did experience adverse professional consequences from his delay in confronting “Juan.” What’s neat is that Robert owned his error and has learned from it. I think he will end up being a great manager who never makes this same mistake again. He wanted to share this story so that perhaps other managers could avoid stumbling in the same way.

Georgia Feiste  |  25 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Great article, Leigh! Too often managers are intimidated by employee feedback that sometimes boils over when they take action on poor performance. The key in my mind is to set very clear, but reasonable expectations, work with staff to meet them, and give them a period of time to do so. If they are not, they also know the outcome. Because, you have made it very clear to them at the very beginning. Communication is absolutely key!

Sonia Di Maulo  |  25 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Leigh! I really enjoyed the post and the comments.

I agree with Chuck that setting expectations and on-going conversation is key. It seems that trust and respect between Juan and Robert took a dip after the first few weeks. One way to keep that trust going is with frequent conversation using the 3+1 feedback model. Whenever you have a chance to provide feedback, deliver 3 things that were done well and 1 item that needs improvement. This strategy maintains trust and provides a very important focus on 1 thing to improve. Monitor performance and provide guidance on that one item until it isn’t an issue anymore. Then do another 3+1. Providing more than 1 item to improve often demotivates and creates a negative outlook on work, as it seems it was with Juan.

This is a great tool: makes it easier to give improvement feedback, and it is lovely to receive! And it is great if feedback wants to be seen as being delivered with kindness. Training all staff on this strategy, doing it early and often (manager to staff, staff to manager, staff to staff) helps to create an environment where performance is recognized, and the opportunity to learn and improve is welcome. A 3+1 feedback tool is available for free download here: http://readytofeedback.com/RTFFeedbackForm.doc
Thank you for offering me the opportunity to comment! Looking forward to your upcoming posts!


Mike Henry  |  27 Feb 2011  |  Reply

I think this is very common. Generally senior executives underestimate the degree to which a middle manager will tolerate a problem because they do not have the skill to solve the problem or they feel powerless to solve it. Senior executives assume power and act accordingly. But it takes a searching, open leader to honestly evaluate their organization and the front-line leaders in it to make sure each leader understands their responsibility to act.

This person didn’t have the ability to deal with the problem when it first appeared in the downturn of Juan’s performance. Everything after that is a management and leadership issue. As a manager, Robert didn’t know he didn’t possess the skill to help Juan avoid the career limiting attitude and behavior. His manager should have recognized it.

But Robert had the skill to reprimand or terminate Juan. And he should have acted. This inability to address problems when they first appear seems endemic to this organization, or at least this branch of it.

So Robert’s leaders didn’t realize or act to help Robert with his problem teammate early. Robert failed to act when it became painfully obvious. If you’re going to be wrong by failing to act, why not be wrong early and avoid the rush. The elephant in the organization is the lack of leadership, delegated responsibility and initiative on the part of middle managers. Some take charge leader, (like your partner) should step in and start hunting for everyone who feeds the elephant.


Leigh Steere  |  01 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Georgia, Sonia and Mike, thank you for taking the time to comment. The Lead Change Group has been very generous in sharing resources and insights. Sonia, I sent an email to “Robert” today pointing him to your 3+1 feedback tool. ;-)

Earlier this week, I gave “Robert” the link for this post. He sent a very kind email reply that I wanted to share with all of you:

“I enjoyed the comments left by the readers. I found those to be very helpful. The comment left by Chuck is exactly what I had been working on.

I am hiring a replacement tomorrow, finally. And it will be a fresh start to get things off on the right foot. Since this all happened, the team I manage has undergone some changes, and in a month or so, 2 more will go. As I started to monitor goals closely, it became quickly evident what needed to happen.

Thank you again for this! It was unexpectedly helpful!”

Sonia Di Maulo  |  01 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for this followup note! The ability to see this post go full circle is a wonderful reward for all of us! :)

The 'Robert'  |  02 Mar 2011  |  Reply

The real ‘Robert’ here,

I just wanted to thank all of you for your direct comments, which I have found to be very helpful, and a good reason to evaluate my approach.

Perhaps, what goes unsaid is ‘why’ I took this approach, and it may add insight to this discussion. I used to work on Wall St. for a company that treated people with such a lack of integrity, dignity, and respect, that I told myself, ‘If I get out of this place, I will do things differently’. At times my approach has led to me helping people getting scholarships to Ivy League schools in the US, and also programs in Germany, but at times, well…Mike was correct. I did not know how to handle when things did not go how I planned; a weakness I have been working on.

The office I used to work at Wall St…I am glad I left it because its not there anymore. So, I am teaching myself these days to take my intuitive nature beyond ‘being able to spot trouble’.

My greatest fear, as a person, is to become a full-time ‘armchair, Monday morning quarterback’ because I know there is always more to learn.

Best to you all,

Mike Henry  |  02 Mar 2011  |  Reply

“Robert,” So glad you could close the loop! I hope things weren’t too direct for you. And I’m sorry if I sounded like a Monday morning quarterback. I’ve made the same mistakes, yours, your bosses and Juan’s too. Thanks for closing the loop.

In my mind, your lack of knowledge is not a personal weakness, it was simply a fact or a constraint. To me, a “weakness” is a tendency. In this case, you needed to know how to hold your teammate accountable for the downturn in their personal performance. You certainly didn’t anticipate the outcome you got, or you would have sought out other methods. And, you seem to be getting better at it. Many of us have had to learn the art of accountability the hard way. (Susan Mazza has a training program titled “Art of Accountability” and you can connect with her if you’re interested.)

To me, the art of developing people is knowing which skills to employ to help people do their best and be their best. For many of your teammates, the actions you took worked. They went on to great success.

Best of luck. Mike…

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