How to Manage Non-Performance like a Champ (not a chump)

I’m betting right now there’s someone in your team who ain’t quite cuttin’ the mustard.

Managing non-performance is one of the most teeth-gnashing, chair-squirming aspects of leading people. And it’s not just new managers who hit Struggle Street when faced with non-performance. Some of the most seasoned, kick ass CEOs I’ve coached still get furrowed brows when it comes to tackling the non-performance piece. 

Here are some tips for navigating non-performance like a champ (not a chump):

Let’s back up the truck a bit first. How crystal clear are they (and you for that matter) on what success in this position actually looks like?

We generally don’t spend enough time up front (when people first start their role) discussing and exploring in enough granular detail, what we will be seeing if they are performing in it. Or we fall into the trap of telling them once and think that this is “job done”. Or we give them the job description to read and think that’s sufficient.

Spend time upfront making sure you are both on the same page about what success looks like (an unintended benefit of this is that it engenders passion and enthusiasm). Get them to reflect back to you what they are hearing you say.

Ask: what do they think their priorities should be? What do they see as their strengths? What areas do they feel confident in? What aspects of the role do they feel less confident in, or need development in? Do your descriptions match theirs?

But let’s say you’ve done that and they are struggling in some aspect of their role…

  1. How clear are they that there’s actually a problem? Being as subtle as a ninja is the bomb if you’re in a martial arts movie, but not so useful when you’re raising awareness that there’s a problem, Houston. The first step in addressing a problem in someone’s performance is raising their awareness (directly, compassionately) that there actually is one! Don’t soft soap. Don’t dance around the mulberry bush.
  1. Don’t wait until the issue is as big as Texas before you tackle it. Too often we delay giving developmental feedback until it’s a massive lump under the carpet and we’re all tripping over it. Pause long enough to see a pattern, but use intuition, your own levels of frustration and direct observation as a litmus test for when to act and gently raise ‘The Thing’ as soon as you can stand it.
  1. Make it a conversation, not a lecture. When your focus and energy is one of  mutual exploration, not a telling off, they are much less likely to become defensive. There is no learning when there’s defensiveness. Ask yourself “what do I want the outcome of this conversation to be?” Let that guide your approach. Get their perspective. Once you’ve stated the feedback piece with specific examples, drop your agenda for a moment and just listen to understand. Ask questions.
  1. After raising their awareness and having a conversation, then (and only then) can you ascertain whether there’s a willingness on their behalf to change. Avoid the temptation to rush into solution mode too quickly. Focus first on getting on the same page as to why it’s in their best interests to work on ‘The Thing’. It’s a worlds apart scenario between willing and unwilling. See here for some tips for starters.
  1. Coach. Once you have their willingness to change, engage them in idea generation. Don’t be so wed to your solution. Is yours a better approach to solving the problem? Maybe. But their ownership in the way forward is more powerful. So jointly find what the way forward looks like. See here for coaching questions to lead and inspire your team.
  1. Don’t leave the conversation unless you both have specific next steps and actions that are time-bound. This can be anything from “given we have different perspectives around this, let’s agree to both just watch for this, and reconvene in a month to share what we’ve both noted” to “I can see it might be useful for us to take a breather and give it the overnight test and I’ll check in with you tomorrow” – a good one if it was a blind spot and they are upset – to “let’s agree you will do X by this date and I will do Y, and we will reflect on progress in a month”.
  1. Finally, don’t drag your feet and leave someone floundering or not performing for too long. It’s not fair to them, their team mates, the organisation or to you. Ask yourself “if this is still going on in six months, what will that be like?” “If my boss thought there was an issue with my performance in some area, what would I like her to do?” Performance issues need deadlines for resolution.

What tips do you have for managing non-performance? I would love to hear from you – please leave your comments below.


  1. Anonymous on April 11, 2016 at 6:57 am

    I love this article thank you. Have forwarded it to our Supervisors too. Cathy

  2. Haley on April 9, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Great tips – I love the analogies and examples in this post! Thanks for the great read x

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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