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Passion, People and Principles

Managerial Underperformance

post # 35 — March 26, 2006 — a Managing post

Since the 1980s, in the course of both my consulting and seminar work, it has been my habit to ask people to evaluate their leader, manager, supervisor – whatever you want to call it.

One of the things that consistently surprises me is that one question in particular ALWAYS receives low scores – how promptly the manager deals with underperformers.

Managers are always rated poorly on this. According to my experience, different managers have different strengths, but everyone, it seems, has the same weakness.

In a recent article (A Great Coach in Action) I discussed the natural reluctance that all of us have to engage in uncomfortable conversations until we absolutely have to.

That article is also episode 3 in my new 15-part podcast series on Managing Professionals which will be launched on my website on April 14, 2006.

In both our personal and professional lives, most of us don’t like to complain, and we have never been taught the subtle art of offering a gentle critique to another person without eliciting defensiveness and hostile reactions. As a result, we don’t say anything until the minor irritation has turned into an unavoidable problem.

What’s significant, I think, about the fact that most managers are rated poorly in this area is that most people are, implicitly or explicitly, saying that they WISHED their managers were more prompt in tackling this issue. People want standards of the group to be enforced. It is very dispiriting to be trying really hard yourself, only to see that management is letting other people slacken and slide.

No-one wants to work in a place ruled by terror. But no-one wants to be part of a sloppy, ill-disciplined group either. People, I’ve been told over and over again. Want clear guidelines and rules of behavior, and then want everyone to be held to those standards.

We hear a lot about ‘ugly’ managers who are too demanding, but my experience is that the opposite problem – managers who are too easy going to tackle performance problems – may in fact be a more common and more resented situation.

Many managers think they are doing their job when they respond to and deal with egregious examples of bad behavior or underperformance. (‘We cut people’s pay or fire them if they don’t ultimately live up to standards.’)

The truth, however, is that if you have waited until someone has failed (or the problem has become intolerable) before you intervene, you have lost most of your options. The essence of management is not –‘do you respond to problems?’- but rather – ‘do you deal with emerging issues before they become problems?’

Failing to help someone in your group who could improve, but who is not yet a major problem, is, of course, a tragedy all around. The individual fails to improve, the group’s performance slips, morale plummets – because the standards are clearly seen to be set lower – and you have lost the (possibly one-time) opportunity to establish a counseling relationship when the issue is only a minor one.

You are most likely to be able to offer a critique – and have it accepted – if you are doing it with someone who trusts you because you already have formed a relationship. So, the most effective managing takes place if there is a history of talking together before there are performance problems. As the saying goes, the best time to build a relationship is before you need it.

The best time to offer performance guidance, counseling and concern is when someone is already performing well, and you’re only trying to help them get to greatness. Do THAT frequently, and it will be easier to spot and discuss emerging problems with greater ease and comfort. You’ll have fewer performance problems all round.

The test of real managerial skill is the courage, the tact and the art of intervening when there is only the first sign of a performance problem, not when it is obvious to everyone.

Do it well, and your people will thank you for it by raising their own performance – and they will rate you more highly as a manager!


Bill Peper said:

Thank you, David, for raising this important topic.

Four disjointed thoughts ran through my mind as I read the blog. It’s too early on a Monday (and I watched too much basketball this weekend) to synthesize these comments further.

First, it is much easier in retrospect to recognize the beginnings of a problem. Virtually every employee has “bad hair days”, where productivity suffers. For every symptom that eventually erupts, there are maybe a half dozen that do not. Great managers learn to predict which situations pose the most danger, and they get their direct reports back on track earlier.

Second, we have a tendency to withhold feedback on work performance (positive and negative) until formal evaluations are completed during the pay raise process. The practice of holding frequent, informal reviews can help alleviate this problem.

Third, it is hard to evaluate exactly what should be accomplished each day/week — especially in a professional setting. There may be a million reasons why the sale was not made or the project is not further along. Increasing the quality of the communication with a direct report — making oversight much easier — should be a goal for each manager

And fourth, few employees demonstrate the courage and initiative to ensure that they receive useful, prompt feedback. Direct reports can make it much easier for the manager by offering suggestions and taking charge of the feedback process.

Dale Dauten, a nationally-syndicated business columnist, has just published the best business I have read in years, Better than Perfect. It examines employees who are special and make everyone around them better. The book is one of the very few “must reads” for manager. [Unsolicited plug: Signed manuscripts are 2-for-1 from Dale’s site — http://www.dauten.com — and the book comes with a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee.] Putting the book’s ideas in practice can help the manager address the issues in this blog.

posted on March 27, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I inadvertantly ommitted the second to last sentence of my previous post. I meant to state, “Also highly recommended and directly applicable to this discussion is Dale’s book, The Gifted Boss. Sorry about the double post.

posted on March 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

The comments are very helpful, Bill, and I’ll definitely check out your book recommendations.

Of all your points, the most terrifying and poisonous is, of course, the second – that people hold back on real coaching because they don’t want to ‘commit’ themselves in formal pay setting schemes.

I’m told about that syndrome all the time – ‘Don’t you think, David, that we would be better not saying anything nice to people, because we may have to give the person a raise.’

Sometimes I can’t believe my ears when people ask these questions and describe the cultures they live in.

posted on March 27, 2006