5 thoughts on handling performance issues

No matter how strong your company culture is and no matter how thorough you are in your hiring process, there will be times in which you will need to handle performance issues on your team. These issues could entail falling short of a key performance indicator (KPI), such as missing quota or not meeting a deadline, or more intangible things such as negativity or reluctance to help. Hopefully, if you’ve established a culture of accountability and continuous feedback, these instances are not a common occurrence, but they do need to be addressed. Here are a few tips.

Don’t wait

Obviously, everyone can have a bad day. However, as soon as you realize that there could be an issue, don’t wait to address it. If it seems during your daily stand-ups that someone is struggling to keep up or it appears that someone is becoming disengaged, talk to them. Some challenges can be resolved before they even become problems. If you already have a full-blown performance issue on your hand, do not wait to see if things will get better. And don’t count on your team member to initiate the conversation about their performance. Schedule an in person meeting if at all possible and be transparent about what you’d like to discuss by leading with the goal of the meeting (e.g. “Let’s identify some of the steps we need to take in order to…”).

Identify the cause

The first step is to work with the individual in order to determine the reason (or reasons) for the underperformance. Be sure to ask questions instead of leading with your own diagnosis. Some of the causes may include:

  • Misalignment of expectations

What is the individual’s own perception of their performance? Do they know that they’re not meeting your expectations? I recommend asking them to restate what the goals are for which they’re being held accountable and to assess whether they think that they’re reaching those goals. If there is a discrepancy in the understanding of expectations, try to determine why it happened. Have you perhaps not stated the goals clearly enough? Have you moved the goalposts? Be sure that you both come to an agreement on expectations, how to make sure they’re met, and an understanding of how to communicate progress.

  • Insufficient skill set

Is the individual equipped to meet the performance standards you’re holding them to? If the issue lies in insufficient skills, get to the bottom of the cause. Did the individual oversell their abilities? If so, is this a deal breaker? Did you miss something in the interview process (and if so, what steps can you take to prevent this situation in the future?) How willing and able are you, the individual, and the rest of the team to get them to a point where they do possess the necessary skills to bring their performance up to par. How long would it take? If the individual is a great cultural fit and has some other strengths that you could leverage, might there be another role in the company?

  • Not the right cultural fit

If the expectations have been clear and the team member possesses the necessary skills to meet them, perhaps the individual is simply not the right fit for your culture. Maybe they value different things and are not willing to put in the effort needed to meet the agreed-upon goals, in which case it’s best to cut ties, as a situation like this is not fair to anyone.

  • Situational challenges

Don’t lose a valuable employee just because they’re finding themselves in a challenging situation, such as an illness in the family, a legal battle, or mental fatigue. While you certainly don’t want to press your employee on personal details, it is important to recognize that there is an issue in order to move forward. Offer time off if needed. Make it clear that you will support them and count on them to come back stronger.

Take ownership

One of the most important insights that you’ll want to gain from the conversation with the team member is how much accountability they are taking for their underperformance. Do they try to primarily push off the responsibility on you or external circumstances (“Nobody picks up the phone!”, “We need more ads!”) or do they focus on the things within their own control?. Note that asking questions in this process rather than making accusations  is a much more effective way to gauge the level of ownership that your team member is taking on. Similarly, you as a manager will take responsibility for whatever is in your control in order to help your employee turn things around. Make sure that your employee understands that.

Collaborate on a game plan

In order to ensure maximum buy-in, collaborate with the team member on a game plan. It doesn’t even always have to be a formal Performance Improvement Plan, depending on the situation. Put everything in writing, though. What are the steps that the employee commits to taking? What are the metrics used to measure if they’re moving into the right direction at the right pace? What do you as a manager commit to? When is the next time you’ll meet and assess progress?

Commit to a clean slate

One of the most common mistakes made by managers involves holding grudges. It’s understandable, as it’s a human reaction. But when you’ve dedicated yourself to helping your team member improve their performance, then once they’ve met your expectations, you need to commit to a clean slate. Otherwise, it will always taint your relationship with your employee, which will ultimately affect performance in s negative way.

When encountering performance issues with one of your team members, address it as soon as possible, figure out the underlying cause, ask questions, work with the individual on a strategy for improvement, take ownership of your role, and commit to the plan – if the employee is a good cultural fit for your company.

What about you? What are your tips for dealing with performance issues on your team?


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