Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Cowardly Manager’s Guide to Dealing with Poor Performers

Dealing with a poor performer has to be one of the hardest responsibilities of a leader. Great leaders confront performance issues head on. They provide feedback, coaching, counseling, and if all else fails, real leaders fire underperformers. It’s all part of earning your scars as a leader.

Cowardly managers come up with all kind of creative ways to avoid dealing with performance issues. Here is a summary of many of the actual methods I’ve encountered:

1. Teambuilding.
Instead of dealing with the the one bad apple, drag the entire work group through “teambuilding” sessions with the hope that the poor performer will be “outed” and fixed.

2. Assessments.
Instead of simply confronting the employee, have the employee take a battery of assessments in the hope that they will figure it out for themselves.

3. Call HR.
Hire an HR person to take care of all employee disciplinary problems so managers don’t have to bother.

4. Transfer the poor performer.
Pass the poor performer off to some other sucker.

5. Training.
Ask the training department to fix the poor performer.

6. Hire someone else to do their job.
I’m not making this up – I happens all the time. But wait, there’s even a more ludicrous option, you can…..

7. Promote them.
Really. It happens. Shocker.

8. Delegate it to another employee.
Ask someone else on your team to “mentor” the problem performer. It would be a good “development opportunity”, thus killing two birds with one stone.

9. Delegate up.
Have Mom or Dad deal with it.

10. Work around the performance issues.
Otherwise known as “playing to their strengths”. In other words, strip all the hard parts of the job away until the poor performer can handle it.

11. Wait for retirement.
Either yours or the poor performers.

And when all else fails, just stick your head in the sand and hope it all goes away. It won’t, but while you’re waiting, the moral and performance of your entire team will be dragged down like an anchor. When that happens, give a copy of this guide to your own manager, and hope you have a coward for a manager and not a real leader.

What are some other ways you've seen wimp managers avoid dealing with performance issues?


Aaron Windeler said...

One thing I've heard of happening is that to be able to transfer a bad employee to someone else, a manager will give that bad employee fairly good performance reviews. Which is doubly cowardly b/c then the person who takes in the bad employee has a harder time getting rid of him/her (since that person got such good reviews from the last boss).

Anonymous said...

I don't want to mix any religion with this issue, but I agree with one of the comments about a lack of inspiration by too many of today's so-called leaders. Feedback, counseling, coaching - they sound like today's leadeship jargon, which are so easy to be recorded under a yearly feedback discussion with an employee. It reminds me about so-called "teflon" leaders.
Unfortunately the same leadership philosophy is taught to our young generation on TV. Mr. D. Trump and TV series like Survivols are today's media examples of very questionable team work. How to act almost like a criminal and how to get rid of the bad ones - for the sake of a good team - and eventually for your own sake.
Your are fired ~ today's leadership ~ big crisis.

Fired Danielson

Anonymous said...

Make them look bad in front of others hoping the "shame" and psychological pressures will make them want to leave the organization.

I've seen managers deploy shameful strategies to negatively impact people's perception of the bad performer in the hopes they will eventually leave.

Instead of doing their job, those managers were counting of the "shame" approach to exit the bad performer.

Ibrahim Ahmed said...

I do practice #10, though I take it from another view, that is putting the right person in the right place. Of course this is when the skills of the under-performer do not match the job, and that he does his best to prove he's up to it.

Kendall Langston said...

I have just blogged about this subject so seeing this post was pretty timely. Leadership takes courage and leaders need to harden up and do their job. That means confonting poor perfomance head on!This means being courageous.

Dan McCarthy said...

Aaron –
You’re right, that happens. Or they give them a glowing reference.

Fired –
I sure hope you’re wrong, and that our next generation of leaders can see beyond leadership according to Trump and Survivor.

danossia –
OK, add that one to the list too.

Ibrahim –
Sure, I use most of these techniques too, i.e., training, teambuilding, etc… but like you, not to avoid addressing the real issue.

Kendall –

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Hi Dan,

A few years ago, poor performers were regularly given a coach. I've heard this still happens, although less "reglarly" (if I can be so crass, it seems like it makes more sense to spend that kind of money and effort on the better performers. Three cheers for courage!).

Life's a Flip Flop said...

I've also seen many situations where performance standards don't exist, so that "poor" performance becomes a subjective assessment by the manager, rather than an objective comparison to what is really required to do a job. To compound the issue, many managers are sadly ill-equipped to coach and mentor others, so it ends up being a case of two people who can't do their jobs right...the "poor" performer (in the manager's eyes) and the "poor" performing manager, who can't coach and mentor.

Deb Hamacher said...

It's time these "wimp" managers learned how to have a fierce conversation. I like Susan Scott's Mineral Rights approach described in her book, Fierce Conversations. Her seven principles of a fierce conversation include:
1. Master the courage to interrogate reality.
2. Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.
3. Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.
4. Tackle your toughtest challenge today.
5. Obey your instincts (OK, so this one may not be the best of advice for "wimp" leaders).
6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake.
7. Let silence do the heavy lifting. (as in seconds or moments, but not weeks or months!)

I've used her Mineral Rights approach with clients and it works. I only wished I had begun using it when I was an executive leader, but as a coach, it's a great approach to helping "wimp" leaders create an impetus for addressing the issue.

Anonymous said...

Sadly and tragically, the US Army has apparently seen the results of this form of leadership. From the reports I have read, the Ft Hood Major was an example of so-called "leadership" following almost every one of the points noted in the article.
Skip Mays
Captain USN (ret)

Fisher Vista, LLC said...

#5 and #10 -- guilty as charged. We've learned some very valuable leadership lessons in the past 12 months and we're finally changing my leadership behavior accordingly.

Being a small firm there's a family appeal, but being nice and being your staff member's friends don't make for smart business decisions and makes for cowardly leadership.

Another important one to add that plays on your "head in the sand" statement - hoping that the employee will be self-aware enough to know this job isn't for them and they'll move on.

Good God that's lame. Really. Especially when you're not giving any direct feedback to the employee.

As my mother's always said, "You have to go through it, not around it."

--Kevin W. Grossman

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,
#5 and #7 are done more often than one realizes. As a Training & Development professional, I have dealt with #5 and the "is it a training issue, a performance issue, or a coaching issue" question with many clients. More often than not, while having this discussion with a client, it becomes quite clear that it is either a performance or coaching issue. Bottom line, when #5 is allowed to happen and not nipped at the bud, then training will be used as a "fix my problem employee strategy" and it wastes precious t&d resources.

In our "do more with less" business strategy environments, individuals tend to be promoted because they are good at what they do, not because they are coaches/leaders/managers. Sadly, many organizations have cut training and development programs for new supervisors, managers and leaders. Without development, people tend to lead as they were led, which is not always a pretty picture.

A tragic twist to # 7 is to promote the individual and put them in charge of the Training & Development team. No joke, I've seen it. As you can well imagine, the negative effects and poor results of combining #5 & #7 is measured exponentially. The individual who was promoted flounders, their team flounders and organizations that employ this strategy sadly reap what they sow. In a time with 10+% unemployment we can not afford to promote poor performers.

Rao Jay said...

I am aware of the practice of leaving poor performers alone. The manager rates them as "Meets Standards", and when the Layoffs roll around the manager has someone to let go that won't be missed. In the meantime, the morale of the rest of the team drops.

Halelly Azulay said...

Good post, Dan. It's so unfortunate that you're so right. I repeatedly hear 'horror stories' in leadership and management workshops and coaching sessions I facilitate about such 'management' behaviors. I see this in all sectors, but unfortunately it is most prevalent in the public sector (in my experience). I've recently blogged about it here: Be interested to know your thoughts.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo –

DH –
I wish what you’ve described wasn’t so common, but I’m afraid it is. These managers are not always bad, they often just have never learned how.

Deb –
I like the approach. While I described what wimp managers do, I didn’t give an alternative. You did. Thanks.

Skip –
Thanks. I didn’t realize that.

Keith –
Thanks. Hey, I’ve made the same mistakes. Good advice from your Mom.

TJfrantx –
“Promote them to head of training” – ouch, that one hurt.

Rao Jay –
I should have added that one… wait until the next round of layoffs.

Halelly –
Thanks. I’ll take a look at your post and leave a comment.

Liz said...

Nicely said. I've inherited several people who had known performance problems and was surprised (No, I can't explain why I was surprised the second and third time I saw this--I'm a slow learner.) to find that their reviews were strong, although their performance obviously wasn't and I had been told they needed some coaching, mentoring, training, special attention.... In all cases, I was told that the voiceover during reviews had been much stronger and in one instance had reduced the employee to tears, but that they hadn't wanted to highlight anything in writing lest it follow that person through their career. The problem is, when these people read through their reviews, they see all good news.

After I fired or otherwise "managed out" these people, their former managers offered to buy me drinks as a thank you and apology. Save the drinks; next time fire your own people.

Dan McCarthy said...

Liz -
What a powerful story that really hits the mark! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest one?

Manage backward in time: Wait until something goes wrong, then say "That's why I never do X... it never works." I think this comes from lacking the confidence to say so at the time.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Anonymous said...

Denying there is any problem with performance and making the person who raised the concerns feel like it is all in their head and just their perception, despite the fact that others have raised similar concerns.

Anonymous said...

One sad note in these times of equal rights is that I have had a manager say that he was nervous about dealing with a poor performer because of their race and how he feared that upper management would not let him get rid of her soley on that fact. She has been here 5 years performing poorly. If we truly want equal rights, that should apply to BOTH hiring and firing. Performance is and should be color-blind. You can either perform the job or not. You are coached and trained and if you still can't perform it then you are let go. This is a business not a popularity contest. DO what is right. Try to help the poor performer, document the progress and deal with the result...whatever that result may be. All other factors should not be in play.

Jon Walton said...

If a manager has done a professional job of laying out a plan for progressive improvement/discipline and it hasn't worked out well, the compassionate approach is to end the dysfunctional situation by moving the person out of the job. How cruel to leave someone stuck as a poor performer - it's not healthy for them or anyone else.