Got an underperformer? 97% of the time it’s not their fault. No, really.

“I don’t understand why they’re still not getting it?!”

This is probably the most common refrain I hear when it comes to performance management. Managers expect their staff to be rational, professional beings who always act with integrity, put their work before all else; who knows when to speak up and when to act with deference. And based on our socialised expectations of work, this is indeed an ideal employee. Except of course there are some fundamental issues with this conceptualisation … largely based on the fact that it in no way matches the realities of how we function.

Every now and again you will genuinely get an inherently problematic employee and nothing you do is going to make a difference. But of all the hundreds of performance management and conduct issues I have dealt with, I have seen this be the case maybe half a dozen times. In fact renown statistician, engineer and founder of Total Quality Management William Deming estimates that 85 – 97% of problems in an organisation are the responsibility of management. This has definitely been my experience.

The reasons are not universal, but they do universally fall in to one (or a combination) of the following. All of them are fixable, but they do require some deep self-reflection on behalf of managers and a willingness to be humbled by the position of responsibility they hold. So what do we see unfolding? Here are our main observations:

- The manager hasn’t actually told the person what they want from them. Well, they have … kind of. They may have implied some version of ‘this isn’t right’, but not elaborated on what ‘right’ actually looks like. The underperformer tries again, still not really understanding what they need to do. And tries again. and again. Or they stop trying because nothing they ever do ends up being right and it’s not clear why.

- The manager tells the employee exactly what they want, angrily … after spending weeks (often months) passive-aggressively hinting at what they want they blow up. By then they’re so frustrated they can’t communicate in a way the person can hear. Instead, all the underperformer takes from it is ‘I’m being attacked, this is so unfair, they never said that’ rather than being open to what the manager actually wants. Thus the seeds of relationship breakdown are sown. This pattern repeats and repeats. Each side increasingly resents the other. And often this leads to …

- The manager stops engaging with the person at all. They email the staff member despite sitting a desk away. They stop including them in meetings. Maybe in the hope that the under performer will telepathically understand the issue and resolve it. What happens next ensures the manager’s view of the person is confirmed; the person is confused and hurt and usually makes more mistakes in an attempt to work out what their manager wants and/or they stop asking for help because things have become so uncomfortable. The manager becomes increasingly convinced the person is a dud. The person increasingly feels like a dud; makes more mistakes; asks for less help. You get the gist.

- The manager has no actual data. I can’t tell you how many times I have attended a performance management meeting to support a manager only to find myself walking a fine line between not undermining the manager who has brought no actual evidence of what they’re alleging and trying to ensure the staff member gets fair treatment. When the manager looks a little closer they often find they don’t have the proof they need – it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an issue but they can’t back up their hunch. The manager’s credibility is shot and they have to build back trust before they can respond effectively to the issue. Things get delayed.

- The manager decides – after years of ignoring a staff member’s poor performance – to do something about it RIGHT NOW. Extra points for when they have promoted the staff member (sometimes more than once) despite them having always been a disaster. Usually, the rush comes because the manager has their own new manager, or they are being questioned about their own performance. The fact that good practice is not quick (though is almost always quicker and definitely cheaper than poor practice once you factor in the clean-up) is not well received at this point.

- The manager has been great – they have the evidence, they have clearly articulated their expectations, they may even have agreed on a well thought out plan to address the issues. And then they never follow it through. 6 months later they’re frustrated because they haven’t seen any improvement and want to sack the person. The staff member argues that they never got the support agreed. The manager argues it was the staff member’s responsibility to make sure things happened. Unfortunately for the manager, it’s just not. It’s the manager’s. Sure, arguably the staff member has an ethical responsibility to follow it up and maybe it speaks to their character, but the manager has both the same ethical responsibility and a contractual one; it’s what they’re paid the big bucks for. At least there’s usually some good material to start the process over again.

- The manager’s expectations are not supported by the systems the person works within. People are very often held to account for achieving outcomes they only hold part of the responsibility for. If Fred has to do his bit in order for Sarah to do her bit, and he doesn’t, there is only so much control Sarah has over that. Sure, she should use her influencing skills, but if Fred’s underperforming it’s not Sarah’s responsibility to fix it. And where peers attempt to, it often ends in conflict with one or both being labelled difficult – when in reality their managers should have stepped in. Similarly, communication channels, workflows, capability, resourcing and bureaucracy can all work against performance.

- The last, which is usually the hardest to get traction with – the manager’s desire to be liked overrides all else and they just let things slide. Usually, these people don’t have terrible underperformers, because their people like them and want to protect them (so they continue to be protected in return), but they are often taken advantage of. Again, obviously the employee shouldn’t take advantage of the situation, but even the most ethical of us are seemingly wired to push the boundaries of what we can get away with (one of my favourite little factoids from my undergrad philosophy days – ethics students are the most likely to steal books to the library). And again, as a manager, you’re paid to carry that extra load of responsibility.

So what can you do:

- Stay calm. Prepare for the conversation, rehearse it if you can, expect push back, take some deep breaths before you start. If, during the conversation you feel cornered or don't have an answer, you can absolutely say you'll come back to them with a response on that point.

- Have evidence. Genuine evidence that is relevant to the issue; work samples, evidence of where you have explained what you needed, data such as clock in and clock out times or other pieces of behavioural evidence where relevant.

- Maintain the relationship, even if it is hard. You don't have to be besties, but you do - as the manager - have to be the bigger person. I can guarantee you won't resolve the issue if you are avoidant, aggressive or selfish in the process.

- Understand that the fastest way to a good outcome (and sometimes that is walking someone out he door), is good process. Whether an issue is new or long standing, start from the start to both reduce your industrial risk and to achieve the best outcome. It might feel like its taking a long time, but it's much quicker and less expensive that having to go through a FairWork process and have to pay someone out or re-instate them.

- Ensure you pause to hear what their issues are with systems and people and resolve or rule those out.

- Stop and remind yourself that you can't please all of the people all of the time as a leader and if you're ignoring someone's poor performance you are probably upsetting people anyway. Aim for respect and followership rather than likeability; it's much more powerful.

We are all emotional, vulnerable, egotistical beings. But also, almost all of us want to please. It’s amazing how quickly you can turn someone around once you add some clarity and trust. Neither are inherently difficult, but both require the ability to be humble and often vulnerable.