How to deal with underperforming staff?

You have an employee that is under-performing, so you need to have a difficult conversation. What is your approach and how many times do you get what you want or better?

This blog post goes through how to deal with underperforming staff which hopefully helps guide you.

In a conversation where we want something to happen, we often focus on getting across our position. After all our position is formed by our rational analysis of the situation and based on our interests and long-term goals, right? I have worked to bring about change in business from big to small over the last 15 years and I have seen time and time again that in almost any conversation, only focusing on our position is a mistake that often undermines our own long-term interests. Nobody wants to focus on emotions, but it costs you money by not being aware of how to handle emotional reactions!

How to deal with underperforming staff - Performance review

Next time you are speaking with someone and you start to feel an emotional reaction, either positive or negative, take the time to observe why. If you dig down you are likely to find there is some attack or support of three key human needs we all have:

  1. Competence (how well we work)
  2. Autonomy (how much we direct what we do) and
  3. Relatedness (how we connect to others)

What follows is a true, every day story about the damage ignoring these human needs in difficult conversations can do. At a small sales company, a sales person was called into the office. Let’s call the manager Alice and the sales person Lucy. The conversation went like this:

Alice (Manager): Lucy, you have been here 3 months now and not made a single sale. Unless we see results soon we are going to have to let you go.

Lucy (Sales Person): Wow, I did not see that coming. Not only did I tell you prior to taking the job that I have no prior sales experience but I am opening up a country that you know is tough!

Alice: We need to see results. We are not made of money!

Lucy: I have things in the pipeline, but I started with nothing and had no experience. You agreed to that. What do you want from me?

Alice: Well let’s review things in another month.

What could the result of that meeting have been?

  1. Alice works harder and brings money in, the investment of time and money paid off (intended and preferred result)
  2. Alice leaves, the investment of time and money is wasted but the drain has stopped
  3. Alice is asked to leave, the investment of time and money is wasted but the drain has stopped

The manager went from everything is fine to your job is at risk if you don’t improve in one meeting! Alice felt attacked. She became disillusioned and soon found another job. You might think, good she was not performing. But was another result possible?

We often think we are ‘just’ talking about business, but we are emotional creatures first. If we review the affect the conversation had on three key human needs, we understand exactly what drove Alice’s response:

  • Relatedness: Prior to the meeting she felt part of the group; afterwards she felt it was her against her manager.
  • Competence: Where before she was a little unsure she was at least feeling like she was progressing, afterwards she felt her competence was under question.
  • Autonomy: Her ability to bring in money to pay her bills was attacked.

So what is a better approach? Always have the difficult conversation but be aware of these key human needs and be careful to attack the problem rather than the person. Push people and they will always push back. I have found time and time again, when I work with people not against them I get great results more often. I have even had great results with people labelled as toxic!

Good luck!

Written by MD2MD speaker Leon Bamforth.