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Lift Poor Performers to a Higher Level

How to discipline without triggering resistance.

Julia Hutton expects her employees to follow through on their commitments. When they don’t, she strives to contain her anger while determining what went wrong.

“Nothing makes me madder than paying someone to do something and then having to do it myself,” says Hutton, chief executive of Orca Communications, a public relations firm in Phoenix.

She recalls a manager who promised to complete an assignment by a certain date. A few days after the due date, Hutton was still waiting so she inquired about its status.

“Oh, I forgot,” the manager replied.

Keeping her cool, Hutton told the manager, “In the future, you need to either get it done as promised or let me—and your teammates—know ahead of time if there’s a problem.”

Since then, the manager’s reliability has improved. Hutton credits her ability to address the situation clearly and decisively, along with the role the manager’s colleagues play in exerting pressure to ensure proper follow-through.

In small companies, many business owners treat employees like family. That’s easy when all goes well.

But what happens when a worker’s performance falters? Instead of insisting that ineffectual or misbehaving employees shape up, it’s tempting to do nothing and hope they’ll bounce back on their own.

Unfortunately, the do-nothing strategy rarely works. Yes, intervening can trigger rancor and resistance. But it’s usually better than assuming people will reverse course and magically improve.

“You’ll get trampled on if you accept poor performance,” Hutton warns. “It’s the worst mistake to be a softie and not talk to your underperformers and demand that they change.”

Peer Reviews: An Overlooked Feedback Tool
Enlist a poor performer’s colleagues to help you manage the ineffectual employee. Follow these steps to administer anonymous peer reviews:

  1. Create a one-page form in which employees rate each other on key performance indicators.
  2. In a team meeting, tell everyone that the purpose of the form is to build skills (not assign blame). Assure anonymity for all respondents.
  3. Distribute the forms every quarter.
  4. Review the completed forms, summarize key findings and discuss with employees as appropriate.

“The goal is to provide professional development in a positive way,” Humphryes says. “It’s a very effective tool that not only helps poor performers improve, but also helps create a system for growing each person.”

Family or Tribe?

Many entrepreneurs love to talk shop with employees. But there’s one topic they tend to avoid: their workers’ performance.

“What often happens is the business owner has an intuitive idea of what’s supposed to get done,” says Ed Muzio, chief executive of Group Harmonics, a performance improvement firm in Albuquerque, N.M. “But I think it’s better to set clear performance expectations with each employee rather than adopt an I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach.”

If you’re dealing with an ineffectual staffer, it’s easier to raise the issue if you already discuss job performance regularly. It’s best to begin by saying, “As you know, we expect that you meet these standards…” Then you can describe how current performance falls below an acceptable level.

Yet such discussions can prove harrowing to business owners who favor a “family model” of managing people, says Muzio, author of “Make Work Great.” Under this model, the boss expresses unconditional support and care for everyone.

The “tribe model,” by contrast, imposes a few reasonable conditions. It’s based on the notion that each employee “owes the tribe a certain amount of output and if you provide it, the tribe will give back to you and you’re there because that exchange works for you,” Muzio says.

Entrepreneurs who cling to the family model may think, “We’re like family here. I don’t want to be the bad guy.” But those who embrace the tribe model communicate more forthrightly with underperformers. They may tell their laggards, “We love having you here, we support your success and we want you to understand that your success requires you to contribute in these ways…”

Attach Questions to Statements l

When instructing an employee to improve performance, spark a dialogue. If you talk too much, you risk coming across as bossy.

To avoid dominating the conversation, follow statements with questions. Examples include:

“I’ve noticed that you’ve submitted your last two reports about three days late. Are you aware of this?”

“It’s a violation of our policy to accept undisclosed gifts from vendors. Are you familiar with our policy?”

“We’re concerned about your reduction in output over the last two weeks. Are you concerned about that?”

“It’s important to listen and then work with the employee to find a resolution,” says Dianne Shaddock, principal at Easy Small Business HR, an online resource for managers.

Caught In The Act

Most business owners want to strike a supportive, we’re-in-this-together tone in guiding an underperformer to improve. But sometimes that well-intentioned approach doesn’t work.

At Finagle A Bagel, a regional chain based in Newton, Mass., co-president Laura Trust prefers to respond positively to poor performers. She may move them to a different store or pair them with a mentor.

When one of her general managers wasn’t performing adequately, for instance, she transferred him to another store. But he still failed to hit his stride.

“Finally, we watched him do something [on a store camera] that was just wrong and careless–leaving the safe open,” Trust recalls. “So we sat down with him and said, ‘We saw you do this. You know you can’t do that.'”

Almost instantly, his performance improved and his store’s results have soared. Trust says “his pride kicked in” after he felt upset and embarrassed.

Trust promptly alerted the manager of her concern. In such situations, time is of the essence. It’s vital to intervene as soon as possible after you observe an example of poor performance.”There’s nothing to gain by waiting,” says Cay Humphryes, owner of NW HR Strategies in Portland, Ore. “If performance isn’t up to par, have the conversation right away in which you explain your standard and how the employee didn’t meet the standard. That shows you treat it seriously and helps you leave a paper trail of progressive discipline.”

Links and Resources


1) Easy Small Business HR provides helpful resources on its website (www.easysmallbusinessHR.com), including a directory of HR terms and dozens of free “mini e-books” on topics ranging from customer service to terminating employees.

2) Business Management Daily is a compendium of articles on management topics (www.businessmanagementdaily.com).

3) Management Issues offers a free e-newsletter, white papers and articles on a range of management topics with a global perspective (www.management-issues.com).

4) At Managing People at Work, you can listen to free seven-minute podcasts on dozens of management topics such as managing difficult employees and managing adversity (www.managingpeopleatwork.com).

Audio Conferences

1) Kigplinger sells 90-minute audio conferences on topics such as “7 Secrets to Effectively Critique and Discipline Employees” and “How to Effectively Change an Employee’s Bad Attitude” (www.kiplinger.com).


1) How to Manage Problem Employees by Glenn Shepard (Wiley, 2005) is a 198-page book with practical tips to elevate a laggard’s performance.

2) The Bad Attitude Survival Guide by Harry E. Chambers (Basic Books, 1998) is a 278-page book that helps managers recognize performance problems and address them.

3) The New Art of Managing People by Phil Hunsaker and Tony Alessandra (Free Press, 2008) is a 368-page book co-written by an Internet entrepreneur and a consultant on how to develop communication skills to manage underperformers.

Morey Stettner is the editor of Managing People at Work and the author of five business books, including Skills for New Managers (McGraw-Hill). Based in Portsmouth, N.H., he coaches executives on their communication skills.

About morey stettner

Morey Stettner is the editor of Managing People at Work and the author of five business books, including Skills for New Managers (McGraw-Hill). Based in Portsmouth, N.H., he coaches executives on their communication skills.