10 Tips for Leaders with Low Performers on Their Team

If you have ever had someone on your team whose performance is just not up to acceptable standards, you know that it creates a drain not only in the form of the results they fail to produce but in several other less quantifiable ways. The energy and effort that it takes to try to figure out what it takes to have them turn their performance around, their negative impact on morale as others perceive them as not pulling their weight, and the organizational waste that is created by all the conversations around the issue do far more lasting damage than whatever tangible gaps exist in the individual’s results. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that their poor results are a secondary symptom of the problem, while the primary problem itself is all the cultural and interpersonal issues that precipitate their lack of performance.

No matter how effective you are at creating a “High Commitment Culture (HCC),” the characteristics of which I describe in my book, The Transformative Leader, you are bound to encounter this problem from time to time. When you do, you’ll want to be prepared to address it effectively, not necessarily in a punitive fashion but in a way that extends respect to the individual and preserves their dignity, but at the same time compels them to restore their performance to acceptable levels in a timely manner.

I have experienced the upside of this on many occasions and I can attest that there is nothing like the joy of seeing someone turn their performance around and once again contribute at a high level to the team and feel fulfilled as a result. I can also admit that in some cases, we were not able to come up with a “win-win” outcome and ended up opting for a “no deal” option, either in the form of voluntary separation or involuntary termination. Either way, how you handle a situation with a low performer has serious consequences both in terms of the costs and benefits of either tolerating low performance or deciding to separate and train a new person, as well as in terms of the precedents you set with the rest of the team.

In this post, I’d like to share a few important points for your consideration as you go through the performance correction process.

1.     Assume positive intent - Everyone, even a person with a chronic low performance issue, wants to be part of something extraordinary. It is our job, our duty, as leaders to create the conditions in which they are more likely to make the choices that lead to this. This doesn’t mean you let the person off the hook. On the contrary, as we will discuss later in this post, it means you hold the person to high standards, but you don’t let yourself off the hook by attributing the entire problem to the person and labeling them a “slacker” to absolve yourself of accountability for the outcome. In many cases, the low performers I have encountered have been people who are extremely energetic and active in other parts of their lives, but something was preventing them from bringing that same enthusiasm to their work. The challenge I faced in those situations was finding a way to tap into their innate leadership ability in the workplace. As mentioned earlier, most of the time it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but in either case, it was my responsibility to do the best I could to influence a positive outcome.

2.     Take the time to understand the cause of the low performance – It helps to know the person and their circumstances enough to determine if the cause of low performance is a special cause like a situation in their life that is distracting them for a period of time, or a more general lack of desire to put in the effort. If you determine that it is a specific circumstance preventing them from performing, you can go about attempting to address that specific situation. If this isn’t the case, then you have to investigate further to find the root cause of their “general” lack of desire to perform well.

3.     Treat the person with respect and preserve their dignity – You can be firm in your expectations and spelling out the consequences and be respectful throughout the entire process. There is no real justification needed for treating people with respect other than the fact that each person, regardless of their performance, is a human being whose inherent worth does not increase or decrease based on their job performance. If you need additional justification, however, just remember that all eyes are on you. When you disrespect someone on the basis of their performance, you send a clear signal to everyone else that your respect for them is conditional based on whether you are getting what you want out of them or not, and you signal to them that your tacit agreement to be judged on the same standards that you judge others. This may get you compliance but will never, ever earn their true commitment.

4.     Hold them to high standards – Don’t settle for the person just getting by or proving they can perform at the minimum acceptable level. Since you are going through the process anyway, you might as well set high standards, within reason, to ensure that the person’s expectations of themselves expand in the process.

5.     Help them set short-term milestones – Recovering from a situation where you are considered to be a low performer can be daunting. It helps when measurable goals and milestones are set along the way to give the person a sense of accomplishment or make it clear that they are not making progress so appropriate actions can be taken.

6.     Genuinely seek to understand how you can support them – As a servant leader, your role is to serve those you lead. As such, you should take the time to understand how you can support the individual in making the changes they need to make.

7.     Balance the use of rules and principles – Be consistent in using your company’s policies and procedures in order to ensure everyone is treated fairly, but don’t be afraid to use your judgment in making discretionary decisions that best suit each particular situation. Strive always to ensure that the spirit of policies and procedures are fulfilled, rather than just the letter of them.

8.     Don’t be a wimp or a bully – Have the courage to be honest with the person on where they stand and make sure they understand the consequences of their choices with respect to the company, the team, and them individually. But also have the consideration to clearly demonstrate to them that you care about them as a person and genuinely want them to succeed.

9.     Provide specific feedback – Whether you are providing positive reinforcement or corrective feedback, be specific so that they are not misled by a general comment like, "You're doing a good job." Let them know specifically what they did well and what they could stand to improve upon.

10.  Respect confidentiality – You have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that information regarding the performance correction steps you are taking is shared responsibly, only with those who need to be involved. It can be tempting to share the information with others, especially if they are fed up with the person’s performance and they want to be reassured that someone is doing something about it. Resist the temptation and keep the confidential information to yourself. If you handle these situations appropriately, over time people will trust you and will not need the details to know that you are handling things properly.

If you are interested in additional perspective on this topic, I’d invite you to check out my previous post on the topic at LinkedIn.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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