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8 common mistakes when dealing with underperformance… and how to avoid them

Edition: 6

It’s time we had ‘the talk’.

When an employee is underperforming, it can be challenging to know what to say or how to manage it. Often staff may not want to engage with their manager to get back on track or address concerns about not meeting outcomes. They might have a negative perception of the process, be unaware there’s a problem, or know there’s an underlying issue but not have the confidence to address it.

As HR professionals we are often called on to facilitate conversations like this and provide the guidance and support that helps managers help their staff. While our immediate role in a performance management process may be to facilitate understanding through two-way open and honest communication, another major focus should be building manager capability.

But even with our people expertise and HR know-how, these conversations can be tricky. To help you navigate this difficult terrain, we’ve outlined some common pitfalls to avoid – whether you’re supporting managers or directly involved.

Supporting managers

If prevention is better than a cure, then ideally all managers should have positive working relationships with their staff. Managers should be encouraged to have regular one-on-one communication and ongoing professional development discussions with their teams. Building and strengthening positive relationships early on will help provide a more psychologically comfortable space to have those frank and fearless conversations before issues develop.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. In that instance, simply making managers mindful of what not to do can help guide them in the right direction during discussions with staff. Here are four common mistakes to make managers aware of and encourage them to avoid.

  1. Assuming awareness: It’s challenging managing someone who is underperforming, but don’t assume they know there’s an issue. Being transparent about their work will build trust with them, helping to ensure they feel comfortable enough to express their concerns and ask questions.
  2. Unclear expectations: Even the best staff can fail if they don’t understand what a manager wants from them. Set expectations early by making sure staff are aware of their value and what’s expected of them, and take the time to set goals. Usually the most successful examples of performance management involve managers taking the time to present and explain the expectations of the role, giving tangible and achievable standards (like ‘SMART’ goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely).
  3. Lack of engagement: Communication is vital to making staff feel valued and engaged. Engage as often as possible! Remote workers especially miss out on the small informal interactions or coffee chats that can turn into critical conversations where team members share important information. Taking the time to engage directly with workers, whether it’s a phone call, video chat, instant message or email, will reduce any feelings of isolation and disconnection from their manager and team.
  4. Not investing in team culture: Poor team culture is a primary driver of underperformance, so ensuring there are positive team dynamics is essential. Managers should closely examine the team environment and question if it is impacting staff performance. By thinking proactively about how they can improve the team culture, managers can increase the team’s connection and wellbeing and in turn improve productivity and engagement.

Direct involvement

Once we as HR professionals get involved in underperformance discussions, a history has often formed between a manager and their staff member. Each person may have strong emotional reactions to the issues at hand. It’s important to remember that it’s our role to support managers to implement strategic processes, to build a performance culture that supports all employees to reach their full potential.

It may help to think of effective performance management as getting employees access to the right support and tools to do the best work they can; it shouldn’t be a punitive or antagonistic process.

Common mistakes we must avoid when having difficult conversations with staff include:

  1. Biases and assumptions: The risk here is going into a conversation already thinking we know what’s happened. Often the situation is complex and multifaceted. Working to identify and unpack the complex issues will be done through actively listening and identifying the primary problem, instead of risking coming to ill-informed conclusions. Start by asking open questions. Approaching the conversation this way creates space for staff to present why they believe there may be an issue. When you demonstrate you recognise what the person is going through and how they’re feeling, they are more likely to show respect and work with you and their manager towards the final goal.
  2. Adopting a solutions-focused mindset too early: Just as we must consciously counteract our own biases, sometimes we have to proactively stop ourselves from jumping to an immediate solution. Take the time to go through a discovery and research phase with the staff member to try to find out what’s going on, before you start identifying solutions. Not only will this help with your fact-finding and profiling, it will also hopefully help staff come to some self-realisations too.
  3. Not taking time to reflect: People can become defensive in performance reviews, and in the heat of the moment we may miss something that’s worth exploring in more detail. Even though most people want to do well and achieve the best they can, it’s natural that when getting constructive feedback their threat levels go up, and this could derail the conversation. Try not to take a response personally and try to be empathetic (to both sides!). Give yourself time to regroup, reflect, and revisit the situation if needed.
  4. Not seeking help: Lean on the experience of the people around you and your leadership groups. Every day and every situation has a different issue and different outcomes. Performance management issues can be long-term, intense and a lot to navigate through. Connecting with your internal and external networks is a great way to check your thinking and support one another. As HR professionals, it’s crucial that we look after ourselves and learn from each other so that we are also able to look after others.

So, what’s the next step if none of the performance management processes work? It’s important to note that it might not necessarily be a poor reflection on the employee; it could simply be a case of a cultural mismatch. As there isn’t a cookie cutter approach for performance management, thinking outside the box and being creative when finding a solution is crucial. This could include moving someone into a different area to expand their capability, modifying their working patterns (to flexible, part-time, or working from home), or offering them study or training opportunities to boost productivity and career development.

The most important thing to remember is that most people just want to feel like they’re making a difference – that they’re valued and that their work has an impact. Having frequent, open, and genuine two-way conversations will help build rapport and assist in making effective decisions for staff to reach their full potential.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020