Encouraging under-performers to reach their peak level | Daily News
Leading your flock to greener pastures – Part 27

Encouraging under-performers to reach their peak level

Lat week, we spoke about how you can train yourself to be the standard-bearer for your team, and be responsible for setting and maintaining the standards of work, behaviour and performance of your whole team and everyone in it! Getting everyone in your team to own and work to your standards can be a challenge. The next four weeks we will talk about how to lead people whose performance and/or behaviour is unacceptable with regard to your standards.

Working on commitment and capability

Your approach to working with a person who fails to meet your standards for work or behaviour is affected by your assessment of the person’s: (1) Capability to achieve the standard and (2) Commitment to do the task to the required standard or behave in accord with your values or standards.

The capability of people to do a particular task to the standard required depends on several factors including their knowledge, skills, experience, the ability to think through complex tasks or problems and so on. The commitment of people to do a particular task depends on the importance that they attach to the task, whether they like or dislike doing it, how easy or difficult the task is for them to do, and so on.

In some situations, you may be tempted to be satisfied when an underperforming person simply complies with your requirements, but it is better if you always strive to gain a person’s commitment to meeting the required standards because: (a) Committed people are more likely to achieve the standard. (b). Committed people allow you to have confidence that they’re going to achieve and maintain the standard, (c) Committed people are easier to manage: you don’t have to monitor that they’re meeting the standard as much as you do if they’re not committed.

We spoke earlier about the importance of engaging people so that they take ownership of (and commit to) the task and hold themselves accountable for successfully completing it. We also showed you how to hold conversations to become brilliant at building commitment.

You can take four different approaches to leading a person. These are to:

(a) Enthuse (when someone is highly capable, but has low commitment to doing the task) the person by: (1) Clarifying the reasons why the person isn’t committed by exploring whether he has any expectations or needs regarding the job that aren’t being met; (2) Explaining the importance of the task and the reasons why you want the person to do it; (3) Recognizing the person’s knowledge, skills and so on that are particularly relevant to completing the task; (4) Helping the person to understand that doing the task to the required standard will enable him to make progress towards satisfying any unmet needs or expectations that he has about the job or role in the organization; (5) Agreeing actions and deadlines, and how progress is to be measured; (6) Thanking the person for using his abilities.

(b) Engage and provide direction (when the commitment and capability of a person to do a task are both low) by: (1) Exploring whether any expectations aren’t being met; (2) Clarifying how the person feels about how he’s doing the job, showing an interest in his sense of self-esteem and the reasons for his view; (3) Looking for ways for building the person’s self-esteem by agreeing small steps or actions that slightly stretch his ability but that he’s likely to complete successfully - with your support if necessary - so that you can recognize and praise even slight progress; (3) Agreeing actions or tasks that progressively stretch the person as his confidence increases; (4) Providing on-going support to develop the person’s ability and provide feedback emphasizing his achievements (use the person’s name when praising him).

(c) Guide and develop (when a person is highly committed, but has low capability to do the task) the person by: (1) Explaining the main steps to complete the task; (2) Encouraging the person to ask questions, and ask your own, to ensure that he clearly understands what you require; (3) Agreeing milestones and deadlines when you want the person to report and discuss progress with you; (4) Being available for reference; (5) Praising achievements and using problems as opportunities for the person to grow and develop his capabilities.

(d) Focus and encourage autonomy (when the commitment and capability of a person to do a task are both high) by: (1) Agreeing the objective or outcome and deadline to be achieved without discussing the method; (2) Providing enough autonomy for the person to make his own decisions and take action to achieve the objective;

(Caution - Be careful to avoid taking highly committed and capable people for granted: remember to thank people for showing a high level of commitment and doing their job well.)

Approaching cliffhanger conversations

Most leaders dislike having conversations with people whose performance or behaviour is unacceptable. Some leaders call these conversations ‘cliffhangers’ because you: (a) Are concerned that you may lose your grip on yourself and lose control of your emotions; (b) Fear that you may slip up in what you intend to say, say the wrong thing and not achieve the intended outcome; (c) Expect that the conversation may sometimes be on a knife edge: tense and uncomfortable; (d) Perceive that the consequences of the conversation going wrong are huge - and it looks a long way down!

Here are guidelines to help you plan how to have really meaningful and successful conversations with someone who’s not doing the job to your required standard.

Preparing yourself:

(1) Be crystal clear about the standards you expect your work colleagues to achieve; (b) Be objective but non-judgmental. (being judgmental can cause you to make the conversation difficult by, for example, expecting the person to be difficult.); (c) Switch on your senses to enable you to give the person your total attention.

Preparing your kit:

(1) Collect all relevant facts and evidence while keeping an open mind that further relevant evidence may be shared with you during your conversation; (2) Clarify any gap between the standard expected and the current level of performance or behaviour as indicated by the evidence, while being responsive to fresh evidence being shared with you in the conversation. (3) Consider how the person prefers to be treated. For example, some people like to get straight to the point in conversations whereas others prefer to talk around and lead up to a key issue.

(4) Be clear about the outcomes you want to achieve from the conversation including any actions that will demonstrate the person is capable and committed to do the task. Be wary of third-party opinions; (5) Sometimes you may have to seek the views of colleagues in obtaining facts and evidence about a person’s performance or behaviour such as when the person is a member of a project group that doesn’t include you. Check whether the work colleagues are giving you subjective opinions or solid facts: opinions can be challenged much easier than facts; (6) Ask your colleagues’ permission to reveal, if necessary, during your intended conversation, that they’re the source of the information. If they don’t give you their permission, be wary of using the evidence: you may decide that you have to use it, but the credibility of the information may be challenged and undermined if you can’t justify it.

Roping people into improvements

Spend time and work with people who are failing to meet your standards so that they identify and understand the gap between their current level of performance or behaviour and your required standard. Encourage them to come up with the actions necessary to bridge this gap so that they take ownership of, and are committed to, improving.

Be smart by agreeing improvements that are ‘SMART’:

Specific. The outcome or actions agreed need to be so clear and concise that they can only be interpreted one way.

Measurable. You both clearly understand how progress will be measured such as through observation, measuring outputs, progress reviews and so on.

Achievable. Agree any support that you’ll provide including ‘on or off-the-job’ training, access to you for advice and so on.

Relevant. All improvements should contribute to the individual, and/or your team and even the organization being more successful: if not, why are you seeking an improvement?

Time-based. Agree dates and times for holding progress reviews rather than propose to hold reviews in one, two or more weeks, which is too vague and open to misunderstandings about deadlines.

Note - People tend to achieve tasks when you agree deadlines as compared to when you leave actions open-ended!

Mapping progress towards peak performance

When working with people who fail to meet your standards, you need to demonstrate your commitment to encouraging them to achieve the required level of performance. Continue to challenge and support them following your initial conversation to discuss their performance.

Always put the date and time for conducting a progress review(s) straight into your diary system; that is, during or immediately after your conversation. This habit reminds you to hold the reviews, and forces you to think about moving or removing it from your diary and consider the implications of doing so. Also decide about the type and frequency of progress reviews to map how well a person is making progress towards the required standard:

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with long experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer. He could be contacted on [email protected])

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