Applying a little tough love at work

Confronting poor performers and speaking to them about how and why they’re not meeting expectations often falls into the “difficult conversation” basket for most managers. They’re never easy conversations to have as they can be fairly confronting for all parties involved.

The fear that doing so will damage relationships or ‘rock the boat’ unnecessarily and cause more trouble than it’s worth is a common reason for why managers avoid addressing poor performance within their teams. This seems to be particularly the case in a small business environment where workplace cultures tend to be more informal and relaxed and where strong friendships as well as working relationships exist between all members of the team.

It’s no wonder then why some managers appear to tolerate poor performers and let them get away with various performance issues. Unfortunately, the hope that poor performing employees will eventually sort themselves out and come up to scratch without any intervention rarely happens.

We think that there’s a common misconception out there that performance management is more of a disciplinary measure or a way of dealing with employees who “get into trouble” at work. As a result the general vibe around the topic can be quite negative. Fair enough really as no one ever likes to hear that they’re not doing so well in their job or be pulled up for getting things wrong. But by creating a culture where doing so is accepted and encouraged for the benefit of your employees’ development and success in their roles, could actually be perceived as a positive thing and not so bad after all.

It’s really important that you address poor performance as it occurs. Show that you’re serious about performance and behaviour standards and ensuring that they’re met. There’s no point bringing things up days or weeks after the event or behaviour has occurred as it will have little impact or relevance. Often employees don’t know that they’re doing something wrong until you tell them – ignorance often can be bliss! When you do confront poor performers they’re likely to do one of two things, either they’ll improve or they’ll move on.

When it comes to having the conversation with the employee about their poor performance, be really specific about how and why they’re not meeting business expectations. Provide actual examples of their behaviour so they have the correct context and clearly outline what the business does in fact expect from them. This is where having things like a Code of Conduct, policies and position descriptions, comes in really handy. Make sure to be as objective as possible during the conversation and only go by the facts.

The employee also needs to be made aware that their actions have consequences. Don’t be hesitant to issue some sort of disciplinary action here if it is warranted such as a first written warning for example. Also clearly outline what will happen if expectations continue to not be met so that they know you’re serious about not tolerating poor performance.

Finally, now that you’ve shown your tough side, show your employees a little love by supporting and encouraging their improvement. Feedback should always be ongoing.

The consequences of not confronting poor performance at work can be huge. It can set all sorts of precedents for unwanted behaviour and breed a set of unwritten rules that become the norm. Furthermore it can build resentment within your team and put those of your employees who are doing the right thing, offside. Finally, the financial burden and costs go without saying.

Effective performance management should be a constructive process that centres on improving the performance of an employee. In many ways it works a little like effective parenting. By this we’re not suggesting that you go and implement a naughty corner at work or anything but instead apply the same principles. That is, genuinely care about how your employees can succeed and stand firm on what you expect from them and accept nothing less. In other words, a bit of tough love.

Janelle McKenzie and Abiramie Sathiamoorthy are the co-founders of E&I People Solutions. Janelle has a hands-on background in HR, her philosophy is all about providing practical solutions that offer businesses real value. Abiramie has worked with a range of different businesses to set up or enhance their people processes with an end goal to help create high-performing teams.


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