Managers handle multitude of daily challenges – budgets, product quality, sales performance, stakeholder relationships. The true test of a manager’s mettle, however, is dealing with difficult employee issues. Many managers lack confidence when it comes to dealing with underperformance. Some prefer to ignore chronic underperformer, letting them drag down the team’s results, de-motivate their colleagues and drain resources.

The traditional performance review was a scripted, top-down, annual delivery of criticism by a more senior person. That type of ‘feedback’ is now recognized to be ineffective, and even destructive of morale and working relationships.

The Harvard Business Review reported this year that:

Given that the traditional performance review is apparently loathed by everyone, how can you give managers the skills, confidence and preparedness to deal with this important issue? In this newsletter, we offer four tips you can share with managers and leaders to help them better manage poor performance.

1. Enable employees to engage themselves

In today’s collaborative and dynamic working environment, we need employees who are engaged and self-motivated, to want to improve.  Rather than manipulating the work environment, or using incentives and punishments to change people’s behaviour, managers need to know how to encourage employees to build self-reliance, motivation and accountability.

It is the managers’ responsibility to enable and teach the employees in their team to perform at their best.

So instead of framing employee feedback in a way which immediately puts them on the defensive, managers should ask questions that encourage employees to take responsibility for their own work. As Peter Drucker wrote, “The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future knows how to ask.”

For example, instead of commenting: ‘You don’t seem to have brought in any new business this quarter”, they should try asking “What work have you done this quarter to develop new business prospects?”. Using active questions encourages the employee to take ownership of both the goal and their attainment of it. It gives them a greater sense of collaboration, and creates some momentum and accountability in the employee.

2. Feedback is not about the manager, nor is it about the past

Many managers feel that providing feedback is an opportunity for them to “flex some management muscle” and prove how good (read: critical) a manager they are. In fact, feedback conversations should be viewed by managers as an opportunity for them to coach and help their staff, rather than direct and judge them.

Marshall Goldsmith, a successful business coach and strategist, recommends that feedback should be forward looking – he uses the term “feedforward” instead of “feedback”. The manager should aim to transform their own concerns about the employee’s past performance into goals for the future. Obsessing about an employee’s past mistakes is not productive. Instead, the performance discussion should be used as a tool to help the employee learn and plan how they can do things differently in the future.

For some managers, this requires a redesign of their approach, providing supportive autonomy that’s appropriate for the employee’s level of capability. Instead of focusing on areas for improvement, the manager now discusses ideas and approaches for the future, and asks how they can help the employee. They focus on things that the employee can influence and change, and avoids a debate about whether and why the employee was inadequate.

3. How to have difficult conversations

None of us enjoys having difficult conversations. In our work and across a range of different sectors, we often find that managers prefer to be popular with their staff. In fact, it’s far more important to be respected. Respected and popular are not the same thing. Staff know when a manager is avoiding dealing with a performance issue. They will respect a manager far more if the manager is prepared to make the tough calls, make good decisions and implement them.

We also often hear that managers just don’t feel equipped to tackle the difficult issues with employees. They struggle with how to broach the subject and what approach to take. Many managers fear that if they say the wrong thing they will wind up on the end of a bullying complaint.

Some of the common pitfalls in communication which we see include:

It’s worth spending the time training your managers in how to have difficult conversations.

Managers should know the difference between poor performance and misconduct, when they can say “no”, and areas of risk. It is important that managers also understand the basics of adverse action, discrimination, bullying and how the company values work in action. That way, if an employee responds to feedback about their performance by alleging bullying, for example, the confident conclusion is that the feedback given was not bullying at all, but part of reasonable management action, and performed reasonably too.

4. Nothing works without follow up

Just as important as identifying under-performance and addressing this with the employee, is following through with the plans to improve that under-performance.We often hear complaints from employees that after raising an issue with them about their performance, their manager never followed through and checked up with them to see how they were going or supported them to make changes. Sometimes this can be because the manager has already formed a view about that employee and isn’t truly committed to supporting them in improving their performance. Sometimes the manager simply becomes too consumed with day-to-day issues.

In a major global study, ‘Leadership is a Contact Sport’,  Goldsmith and Morgan found that managers who follow up are perceived as far more effective than those who don’t. They demonstrate that they care about performance, and that they care about their teams.

It is important that any plan to address performance sets out clearly what is expected of the employee and what the timeframe is for improvement. The plan should also provide standards against which performance can be measured. The plan should incorporate a process of regular meetings between the manager and the employee so that they can discuss how things are going.

Where the plan includes further training or coaching it should be clear who bears the onus of making those arrangements.


Is there anyone in your organisation whose under-performance is not being addressed? Are the managers in your organisation currently equipped to properly deal with this?

As the year draws to a close, think about what you need to do in 2015 to make your workplace one where everyone contributes their best.

This article is based on part of Worklogic’s program for managers “Ethical Leadership”. If you are interested in learning more about this program, including the module about performance conversations, please do contact us.

What Will Your Workplace Get For Christmas?

The end of the year is nigh, business is being finalised, the sun is shining and the promise of a festive break awaits. For most employees this is the time of year to celebrate a year of hard work and wind down. Some of you however will be charged with dealing with the handful of staff who inevitably take the relaxed behaviour of the ‘silly’ season one or two steps too far.

So to our HR colleagues, we offer “A Christmas wish list” which may reduce the likelihood of inappropriate workplace behaviour in the coming weeks and ensure you get to enjoy that time in the sunshine too!

A Worklogic Christmas wish list

1. Policies

Circulate your organisation’s policies on appropriate and professional behaviour prior to staff and client functions; this is a gentle but definitive reminder to your colleagues that they are required to conduct themselves professionally and respectfully as we head into Christmas party season.

2. Training
If time allows, consider conducting that refresher training on appropriate behaviour in the workplace that you’ve been meaning to arrange. If there’s no time left this year, plan to get it on the agenda for early in the New Year so everyone starts the year on the same page.

3. Champions

Encourage managers to champion safe and respectful behaviour preceding and during Christmas functions. More than ever, “walking the talk” at your social function, whether it a “cruise on the Yarra”, karaoke-a-thon, or “Sunday BBQ” at the CEO’s, will set the tone for how everyone else also acts.

4. Social media

Consider implementing a social media policy, if you don’t already have one. They say that “honesty is the best policy”, but some staff may find the combination of technology and free alcohol at the end of a year of hard work the perfect cocktail to be too honest ! And sharing photos of Anna from accounts “dirty dancing” with Dave from IT at the office Christmas party can lead to a perfect storm of problems.

5. Health and wellbeing
Promote your organisation’s health and wellbeing policies; for some, Christmas is a difficult time of year. They may be feeling sad, lonely or anxious. The Beyond blue website offers some great resources to guide you if you are working with a colleague who you feel may be depressed.

6. Reflections and praise

Take the opportunity to reflect on what went well this year and where the areas for improvement are.  Make sure you thank employees for their efforts in 2014 and encourage a positive start to 2015.

Finally, Worklogic would like to acknowledge the support of our clients and friends in 2014. We have been very busy between training, mediating, investigating, advising, and reviewing – not to mention publishing our book! We look forward to working with you again in 2015 to create happy, productive and healthy workplaces. Happy Christmas!

1 Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, ‘Finding the Coaching in Criticism’, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014


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Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.