Do Your Leaders Ignore Poor Performance?

By Heather Campbell

Hear No EvilDo leaders in your organisation ignore poor performance for too long – or indeed completely?

Chronic failure to tackle underperformance is potentially the biggest waste of resource in business today. And it’s a problem that is recognised and talked about all the way from the Executive team, frustrated at lack of results, to front-line employees, fed up at picking up the slack left by less productive colleagues.

What is causing this business blight that is costing businesses millions – perhaps even billions – every year?

The primary cause is managers’ personal fear of having difficult conversations. Telling someone clearly, directly and fairly that their performance is not up to scratch causes even experienced leaders to leave performance problems unaddressed.

This doesn’t mean that the solution is as simple as running a series of leadership communication workshops on handling difficult conversations, although upskilling managers in this area is usually a key part of the solution.

If you take time to calculate just how much this failure to address underperformance  is costing your business, you will realise that serious attention to a number of additional causes is merited. You’ll need to look at the wider organisational environment as well as building management skills. What elements within your organisation’s environment may need to change so that your newly upskilled managers can confidently have the conversations they need to have?

In my experience with businesses that wish to tackle this thorny area, there are three things within the organisational environment that commonly stop managers having conversations about underperformance.

1. Lack of Support

In organisations where underperformance has habitually been ignored, the first manager who tries to tackle it often has the unpleasant experience of having a grievance taken against them in response. When individuals are not used to underperformance being addressed, even the mildest step towards doing so can seem like a huge and unfair change of direction by the manager.

When grievance procedures are instigated, managers are often left feeling isolated because their immediate boss and the HR team have to move into impartial roles while they investigate the situation. And even if the case is reviewed swiftly and the manager cleared of all blame, the self-doubt and isolation experienced during this period can hang over a manager for a long time. Such a situation needs to happen only once for the story of the manager’s experience to spread amongst peers, pushing them to return to the safe ground where they work around underperformance rather than dealing with it.

So, if you want your managers to address underperformance, you must ensure that they feel – and are – supported when they do so.

2. Hostile HR Professionals

One of the ongoing tensions in many businesses occurs between line managers who want to tackle underperformance and the HR professionals who too often take a superior pleasure in observing the manager’s incompetence in doing so. I confess to having been one of these individuals myself; yes, I have rolled my eyes as yet another manager has asked how they can implement the organisation’s formal procedures in relation to a serious case of underperformance, only to confess that they have given the same individual excellent ratings in their last three performance reviews. While the frustration and bemusement on the part of the seasoned HR person may be understandable, it is so unpleasant for the over-stretched manager to experience that many simply prefer to ignore the underperformance.

HR teams need to look long and hard at themselves and consider how they can ensure that they offer a supportive and objective guiding hand, and don’t become a ‘critical parent’.

3. Mixed Messages

For the last two decades there has been so much emphasis on the manager’s role being about helping individuals realise their potential, providing coaching for growth and development, and engaging hearts and minds, that many managers think their role is all motherhood and apple pie. In some organisations, underperformance is an indictment of the leader more than the underperforming individual. Of course the manager’s role must embrace the positive elements generously and frequently, but alongside the coaching, motivating and encouraging feedback, managers must also give tough messages too.

If you want to finally get to grips with managing underperformance in your organisation, make sure your managers have the skills to have the difficult conversations that this will entail. And in addition, look closely at the wider environment within which they are having these conversations. What needs to change to make sure that managers are safe and secure as they take on this often unattractive but always necessary part of their role?

CommsMasters is the UK’s leading training consultancy specialising in building advanced leadership communication capability. We partner with our clients to improve organisational performance through developing their people. We do this by designing and delivering bespoke programmes using our unique combination of knowledge, experience and practice-based learning. If you’d like to find out more, give us a call on +44 (0)141 419 0183 or drop us a line.

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