Tackle It Head On – Managing Underperformance So It Doesn’t Manage You

A couple of weeks ago, my client Jim* was lamenting over the fact that one of his team members, Nigel*, had dropped the ball recently. The usually professional and “onto it” Nigel was missing deadlines hand over fist, handing in sloppy work, and being as apathetic as my 12-year-old when he’s told to get ready for school in the morning. (And that’s Apathetic with a capital A).

When I asked Jim if he’d raised this new pattern of behaviour he’d noticed with Nigel, he looked at me a little sheepishly and admitted that no, he hadn’t. “It all seemed a bit awkward.” Sure he’d pulled him up on a couple of specific issues, but he hadn’t had a conversation with Nigel about the recent behaviour trend he’d noticed.

You might be thinking that Jim needs to take a teaspoon of cement and harden up, but he’s not alone. Like many leaders, Jim would rather stick his head in a vat of hot oil than have these tricky, oh-so-awkward-but-necessary conversations around performance.

As we talked further, Jim realised that poor Nigel couldn’t change something that he wasn’t aware of.

He saw that having an exploratory conversation with Nigel to find out the root cause of his drop in performance and jointly exploring how to get him back to where he needed and wanted to be was the best way forward.

So many people who aren’t performing don’t even know there’s a problem.


Because you haven’t told them.

Left to fester, non-performance can cause dramas rivalling an episode of The Real Housewives of New York. Team morale nosedives, and the unchecked behaviour causes resentment and is generally a downer for the whole unit. And, let’s be real, it’s not fair to the person who isn’t performing either. How can they fix something they don’t even know about?

So the next time you notice one of your direct reports is not where they need to be, is struggling or somehow getting in their own way, don’t leave it. Check it out. Be straight up in a caring way. Don’t soft soap it or dance around it. And please don’t hide behind emails when it comes to non-performance. Have a conversation. Nip it in the bud. Don’t wait for it to be a big deal before you raise it.

Remember, if you truly care for your team members (and you should), it’s not fair on them or anyone else in the team to leave non-performance languishing and problems festering.

The happy ending in the Jim-Nigel story is that once Jim raised his concerns with Nigel in a supportive yet direct way, he discovered that Nigel was going through a particularly nasty marriage break up. Nigel hadn’t realised it was impacting his work as much as it was. They were then able to come up with ideas around what support he needed and what steps they could take to get him back where they both wanted him to be.

*not their real names

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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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