Are You Inadvertently Being Cruel to Your Employees?

On any team, there will be a variety of performance levels.  Some employees have more experience, more skills, and more focus than others.  It's okay that not everyone's the same - that's part of what makes teams effective.  However, if there is someone on your team whose performance is consistently below the minimum expected for their role, you need to intervene.  
Managers are often reluctant to tell an employee that his or her performance isn't up to par.  There are usually multiple reasons for this: not enough time to sit down and have the discussion, not sure how to start or even have the conversation, the employee is trying and putting forth a decent effort, etc.  The main reason, though, is usually a reluctance to make the employee feel bad.  In some cases, it's because the employee has a communication style that makes it likely that he or she will create a scene or be angry, but in most cases it's that the employee is a generally nice person.  

It's important to realize two critical facts about a situation where an employee's performance is not acceptable:

  1. It is unkind to not let the employee know where he or she is falling short, so that there is an opportunity to improve or perhaps explore other roles that might be a better fit.  The problem is unlikely to go away on its own, and even if it were to eventually disappear, your team's morale and results will be damaged in the meantime.  In most cases, things only get worse with time, and it is cruel to wait until you're forced to write the employee's performance review to let them know that they're not doing as well as they could be. 
  2. It is unfair to your strong performers to ask them to carry or even just work around a low-performing team member.  Good managers worry a lot about what they say to their employees, and while words are important, actions carry even more weight.  If you tell your top employees that they're doing great work and that you value your contributions but you continue to make excuses for another member of the team who is doing mediocre work, they will not believe that their excellent performance matter that much.  

There are specific steps you can take in delivering difficult feedback, but before that conversation takes place, you may need to do some psyching up to get yourself motivated to take action. 

Ways to make it easier to have a tough performance conversation with an employee

  • Recognize that this isn't about you and what you're willing to tolerate.  It's about what your employees, both the ones who are performing well and the employee who is not performing well, deserve from you as their leader. 
  • Think of yourself as the employee's mentor.   If you were helping them be as successful as possible in their career, what would you need to tell them?
  • Be as concrete as you can, but make sure that you focus on the actual outcomes you expect to see.  If part of the low performance is coming in late and leaving early, make sure you don't solely focus on attendance but also on the effects their lack of presence causes.  
  • If possible, narrow down the issues to the one that is having the most impact, and get the employee to focus on just that area for the next three weeks.  (That is, they still need to do their regular work, but in terms of improvement, give them just one area to work on rather than all of them at once.)
  • Make sure you're not inadvertently punishing your top performers by always asking them to do things because you know you can rely on them or having them to extra work to compensate for the low-performing employee.  Don't make them mentor or train the low performer, either, unless that is something the high performer would like to do.
  • Be clear and consistent with the standards you hold your employees to, and intervene when they're not meeting them.  A good rule of thumb is to say something after three occurrences of a behavior or performance level that doesn't meet standards.  (You can certainly say something sooner, especially if it's egregious, but the "rule of three" ensures that you address things before they become larger issues.)

You owe it to your employees and to yourself to do whatever needs to be done to set the team up for success.  Sometimes, that will mean having a hard conversation.  If you approach it with the spirit of trying to help the individual and the team be as successful as possible, the exact words will be unimportant.  Just do it, today if you can. 

Related resources

  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: a leadership parable, by Patrick Lencioni  This is a great book for understanding team dynamics and how to create an environment where team members hold each other accountable.  If you have a poor performer, it's your job as the manager to do something about it, but individual employees can be great at addressing more subtle things that you might not even be aware of on the team.
  • 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, by Paul Falcone. If you're feeling uncertain about how to describe the problem, this book can help you by giving you phrases to use and also helping you feel confident that what you're asking of the employee is reasonable.

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