Sometimes managers avoid dealing with employee performance issues out of a concern that a direct conversation will become confrontational, complex or time consuming. Other managers worry about creating potential legal issues if they don’t have a company policy to stand behind.
To slice through the fear and complexity, I asked Alice Waagen, president and founder of Herndon, Va.-based Workforce Learning, to share her simple framework for dealing with underperforming employees. Her answers follow my questions, which are in bold.
What mistakes do managers often make in discussing performance problems?
Alice: Here’s a scenario I see all the time. Let’s say you manage a team of six hardworking employees. But one employee – let’s call him Fred – is loose with his time management and often late to work and meetings. One day his lateness screws up something important. What should you do as the manager?
Some managers actively avoid the confrontation that comes with providing direct feedback. Rather than discussing time-management expectations one-on-one with Fred, they instead lecture or send an email to the entire team, reminding them that everyone is expected to start work on time and be punctual to meetings.
Of the six team members, five did nothing wrong, but they still get their hands slapped for Fred’s behavior. Some managers will go even further and create an unnecessary policy or procedure to correct the isolated instance, because they can then hide behind “company policy,” rather than addressing the issue head on with Fred.
I call this, “managing by exception.” Unfortunately, this approach won’t correct the root cause of a problem. It actually generates more friction with your team, especially if you do it very often. Other employees will sit through your lectures and roll their eyes because they know you’re only talking about Fred. And even worse, Fred might lack the self-awareness to realize you’re talking about him, so because you did not single him out, he assumes you’re talking about someone else.
Alice: Before creating a new policy, first ask yourself two simple questions.
First, ask yourself, “Is this an isolated, single incident, or part of a trend?” Don’t change policy because of an anomaly. Fred’s issue with time management does not mean you should reconsider your policy on common core hours. Address Fred’s problem individually. While it might feel less confrontational to abstract Fred’s problem into a policy, it comes at a serious cost. When small matters lead to restrictive new policies, you gradually create a work environment that feels punishing to the people with good judgment and common sense.
Second, ask yourself, “What’s the severity of the problem?” Is it a small matter, or did it put the organization at risk? Extreme issues may call for a new policy – a public hanging. But when small matters all result in new policies, you’ll lose the dramatic effect when you need it. All your policies become meaningless.
How can managers discuss performance without things blowing up into a confrontation?
Alice: Managers build conflict resolution up in their minds like it’s going to take a lot of time, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s what to do:
As soon as possible after the incident, write in one-to-two brief sentences what the problem was. Sit down and talk with the employee and deliver this brief message. You want to be clear but not droning on for hours.
Then, most importantly, ask to hear their side of the issue and ask them to explain their reasoning. Come to a consensus together on how to address the issue, then have them go back to their desk, write up the plan, and email it to you for approval. Then just check in periodically to make sure it sunk in.
Alice: Right, if the employee wasn’t listening during the meeting, they’ll return to their desk and then realize they’re clueless about what was discussed. If the manager does the write-up, it creates more work for the manager every time an employee makes a mistake. Worse, the employee might misinterpret the manager’s resolution to the problem, leaving everyone no better off, because the behavior won’t change.