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Improve a pattern of low performance.
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Low Performer Conversation

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Performance management is a necessary part of sustaining or improving organizational results for leaders. We find each employee falls into one of three levels of employee performance. In most organizations, only about 10% of employees are low performers, about 60% are middle/solid performers, and about 30% are high performers. Although low performers account for the smallest group of employees, leaders report spending up to 80% of their time focused on sub-par performers. Family and friends outside of work can probably name your low performers as well, they’re typically the people we bring home with us and talk about most with others.

Most people will strive to do good work and want to perform well at their jobs. As leaders we provide coaching, support, and all of the necessary tools and resources to ensure our employees can perform their jobs to our expectations. At some point, a line must be drawn, enough is enough, the performance or behavior must change.

If you have coached, supported, and given your employees ample opportunities to improve their skills, and there is still a persistent pattern of low performance, it’s time to prepare for a conversation using the D.E.S.K. approach.

Addressing a Pattern of Bad Behavior

Ignoring poor performance affects the team, the leader, customers or clients, and the organization as a whole. Even postponing performance conversations can cause damage to the team and organization. High and middle/solid performers notice sub-par performers aren’t keeping up and can become frustrated, sometimes to the point that they will choose to leave the department or organization. The sub-par performers can affect the middle/solid performers negatively by encouraging them to conform to their negative attitudes and behaviors. It’s not fair for your team of high and middle/solid performers to carry the low performers, its crucial to address low performer behavior quickly and effectively.

Addressing sub-par performers improves morale, customer satisfaction, engages employees, and encourages high and middle/solid performers to stay and continue to sustain and improve their performance. This D.E.S.K. model for this conversation should be used with employees you have already tried a stub your toe conversation and an impact conversation with previously. They have established a pattern of bad behavior or low performance. You’ve coached and supported this person, and at this point you wouldn’t rehire them given the opportunity.

We typically experience two types of low performers; those who fall short on results and those that don’t adhere to the right behaviors or violate policies of the organization. It is possible for a low performer to fall into both categories. The Will & Skill Matrix helps leaders differentiate between lack of will (they don’t want to change) or lack of skill (they can’t change). Know which type of low performer you are dealing with and be ready to provide specific examples during your conversation.

Characteristics of low performers include:

  • Positions leadership poorly
  • Passive aggressive
  • Unwilling and resistant to change
  • Negative attitudes and influence on the work environment
  • Blames problems on the leader and other team members
  • Unwilling to adapt to best practices
  • Lacks ownership
  • Doesn’t meet deadlines and goals
  • Initiates a “meeting after the meeting” conversation
  • Doesn’t lead by example
  • Doesn’t role model the organization’s values
  • Doesn’t accept feedback from others
  • Deficient follow-up and follow through
  • Reluctant to update skills and knowledge
  • Shows little interest in improving their own performance or the organization’s performance.

Use the differentiating staff guide for additional information on identifying your low performers.

There is one purpose for a conversation with a low performer; to move them up or out of the organization. In our experience, once it’s understood that their behavior will not be accepted, 1/3 of low performers improve, another 1/3 exit the organization, and the remaining 1/3 will need their leaders to move them out of the organization.

Necessary preparation should be taken before a low performer conversation is conducted. Gather any examples of poor performance and previous conversations and meet with your direct supervisor first. Be transparent and honest with your supervisor, even if you have made mistakes documenting the behavior. After speaking with your supervisor, speak with human resources. Share everything you have with HR and create a plan. Find out if you need to start with verbal or written warnings, are there contracts involved, or do you have enough documentation to ask the person to leave the organization now? What are the consequences for the employee’s behavior, and what will the consequences be if it continues?

This is probably not the first conversation about their performance the sub-par performer has had. Many low performers are used to manipulating conversations and aren’t afraid. Don’t start the conversation with the low performer with a greeting or on a positive note. Leaders begin this conversation by establishing that this is a serious conversation and they will do the talking. Input from the employee will only be welcome once the leader is finished. Realize this person may interrupt or go on the offensive. Be prepared. You may elect to bring a supervisor or official representative from HR with you for the conversation.

The D.E.S.K. Model in 4 Steps:

Be Serious

Don’t start the conversation with a greeting such as, “How are you?” This is not the time for a positive, friendly conversation. Stay focused on the talking points you prepared, and let your low performer know they will have a chance to speak after you’ve finished.

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