|On the cover|
Why we avoid managing poor performance - Part Two
Constructive ways of dealing with poor performance. By Dr Stanley Arumugam
The reality of the workplace is that the behavioural mechanisms outlined last month are not restricted to the staff member. In any organisation, the boss always has a boss and the anxiety of performance and fear of failure knows no hierarchy. CEOs can feel just as anxious as can Board Chairs.
The reality of our human condition is that we are inherently fragile, gifted and flawed – all in one package. Awareness in the workplace is a requisite to effective management. In my view managers need a more developed EQ to be effective in their roles. It’s a non-negotiable and a factor of success.
It is this level of awareness of self, the human condition and workplace behaviour that will help managers navigate through the task of managing poor performance. Some of the following practices may be helpful in managing poor performance:
1. Past behaviour predicts future behaviour
The first management training course I went on when I started work was ‘Targeted Selection’. The key principle of the interview training methodology was ‘past behaviour predicts future behaviour.’ This principle has been invaluable over the years in my work as a psychologist and more especially as a manager. I didn’t always pay attention to this principle and have paid the price once or twice with poor selection decisions.
This principle logically requires that we identify behavioural patterns whether we are selecting staff, appraising them or managing poor performance. This is a sensible way especially when having to manage poor performance. Patterns develop over time and what may have been overlooked during the interview or reference check have an uncanny way of popping up when you least expect it!
The likelihood of your concern about poor performance may often be traced back to a pattern of behaviours some of which you may have overlooked, ignored or just didn’t think it was big enough to be a problem. When you have to confront poor performance at a point it becomes intolerable, you will ‘suddenly’ see the things that didn’t matter over the months or years. These behaviours incrementally build up into a pattern that makes poor performance unchecked over the years become really problematic. By this time you may be in a legal, employee relations quandary.
The proactive way would be to monitor behavioural patterns over time and deal with these decisively. Pay attention to early warning signs; late coming, absences, not meeting deadlines. Don’t discount your intuition, if these behaviours make you uncomfortable – confront them.
When confronted staff may be very assuring of improvements, this won’t happen again, they may express regret and feelings of remorse for letting you down. You give in, feel sorry and let them off the hook. The same behaviours happen next month and the same sob stories persist. Remember, past behaviour predicts future behaviour. Unless the person is in a coaching or development programme, no magic is suddenly going to happen. Wake up and smell the roses or the coffee!
2. Beware of the boomerang effect
When I was doing my undergraduate psychology, I learned of Piaget’s cognitive development stages. Piaget studied children’s development and came up with the observation of ‘object permanence’. He believed that if an object like a toy was hidden from view, the child believed it was gone. There has been a lot of later research on this subject.
Strangely, some managers seem to be stuck with this sense of object impermanence. For them, if they don’t deal with poor performance they imagine it would go away. No, it’s not true! Not dealing with the things that make us anxious, does not magically take them away from us. You may pretend you didn’t see the baby snake slide into the office because you are afraid of snakes; you don’t tell your colleagues for fear of looking silly and all the while over the months the thing you avoid is growing into something more lethal and harder to handle.
Poor performers may also start to develop a mentality of ‘getting away’. They boast in the canteen and with their buddies over a beer how their managers are so dumb that they can’t see that they are cruising. I was intrigued by the true story in the movie ‘Catch me if you can’. In this movie a maverick young man, fakes being a pilot, makes millions and lives the high life and begins to believe his lies of being un-catchable. Employees who get away with small things progressively get away with bigger things, until you have a fraud case on your hands.
The worst thing for a new manager is to inherit the poor performers that the previous manager did not have the guts to handle. ‘Passing the buck’ is tantamount to cowardice. The problem becomes someone else’s and the new manager has to go through the pain of dealing with a troublesome employee who should have been fired years ago.
3. Where there is no vision people perish
I love the line from Alice in Wonderland ‘if you don’t know where you going any road will get you there.’ One sure way of avoiding all the trouble of managing poor performers is to be clear right at the start what is expected for full performance in this job.
Line managers are responsible for setting the standards – not staff. As we adopt a more egalitarian workplace culture we may be tempted or brow beaten into believing that setting standards and expectations is hierarchical power play or not politically correct. Unless you are in an equal business partnership, most organisations have a hierarchical expression of expectations from the Board to CEO to Heads of Department to Supervisors.
Setting expectations is not a bad thing, in fact is the responsible thing for line managers to do. Those that shirk this fundamental responsibility are not good stewards of organisational assets. How you go about setting standards doesn’t have to be dictatorial but this doesn’t negate management’s responsibility.
All staff must have clear performance expectations. Articulate these into a set of standards for your company, division or unit. Be clear about what is expected in terms of time, quality, money and values. Specify the 'how' and the 'what'. Many managers fail because they are either too fuzzy or assume that their staff magically know what is expected. Other managers are so intent on the ‘what’ that it may come at any cost – neglecting the ‘how’.
Being clear about non-negotiable values is just as important as results as they both contribute to bottom line organisational integrity. I’ve seen many organisations that tolerate the shocking bad behaviour of staff in exchange for their technical brilliance, savvy business sense and results they show. All along the trail of ‘success’ are bodies of other staff and even clients that have been trampled on to ‘bring home the bacon’.
The extremes of this show up in corporate bullying, harassment and fraud. We are so bedazzled by the light, smoke and mirrors that we miss the real show. It’s too late when we find out that we are the clowns and the ringmaster is the ‘super results guy’.
Good stewardship requires accountability for the resources entrusted to us as managers and leaders of organisations. This includes both financial and human resources. Just as finance is not the sole responsibility of the Finance Department, so too it is with human resources. Every line manager must be held accountable for the proper stewardship of their staff. Unlike intangible assets, we are now in the realm of complex human beings who cannot be controlled like machines in a Newtonian style.
Stanley Arumugam is the International Director HROD and Governance at ActionAid International, www.actionaid.org.