Dealing with Poor Performance

Recent research in business management demonstrates the over riding importance of positive work relationships in building a profitable company. Business schools which have historically focused on the task dimensions of leadership are beginning to get the message and are putting more emphasis on building interpersonal skills in future managers. This approach is coming to be known as “relationship-leadership.”

The relationship-leadership approach to managing people differs from traditional management practices in many subtle ways. To demonstrate the difference, we will look at an alternative way of dealing with an employee’s poor perform-ance.

Let’s start with a story. Tom just joined the organization as a salesman. He comes to the organization with an out-standing track record in technical sales. However, his new company sells investment services to very wealthy people. Selling a service is quite different from selling a tangible product. As a result, he will have to develop some new sales skills. Tom is regarded as an exceptional sales talent, so both Tom and his boss are confident he will be successful.

Tami has been with the company several years, always performed well and is regarded as a talented, loyal employee. She was recently promoted into a highly technical position reporting to a manager who has been with the organization for only two months. Tami is looking to her boss for direction on what she should be doing but her new boss is still trying to figure out the “lay of the land.”

After only four weeks, it is clear that both Tom and Tami are failing in their new jobs. If they don’t quickly make dra-matic improvement, the Senior Vice President who their managers report to will insist that they be removed from their positions. Their managers are in a bind. It is a tight labor market; neither employee can easily be replaced.

If you were Tom’s or Tami’s manager, how would you handle these two situations? How would you drive home the message, “Your job is on the line; if you don’t immediately improve your performance, I can’t help you. You’ll be his-tory.”

Traditionally, improving performance involves observing an individual’s performance and working on that employee to ‘fix’ the behavior. The focus is on correcting weaknesses.

The traditional process for ‘fixing’ behavior is:
1.Get the employee to acknowledge that the undesired behavior exists.
2.Create an understanding of the reason why such behavior is unacceptable.
3.Agree that it is the employee’s responsibility to change the behavior.

This method seldom works because it is based upon coercion. No permanent, positive change ever happens when an employee feels threatened or forced to change. Fear never creates a positive leaning environment.

The relationship-leadership approach focuses on 1) the employees understanding of why they are not meeting expecta-tions, and 2) the manager and employee work together to remedy the problem. Some common reasons for an employee not performing are:
1.Not understanding what is expected and why (a communications issue).
2.Not having the necessary talent, cognitive ability, required educational tools, or Emotional Intelligence (square peg, round hole syndrome).
3.Not having the skills or knowledge required to meet the expectations (a training issue).
4.Not wanting to do the task as expected because: Values or interests different than those required by the job, or fear. Fear of failure, success, rejection or abandonment.

In the relationship-leadership approach, the manager and employee have a courageous conversation, an open discussion as to what is really going on. From this honesty and openness the right solution appears. Reconciliation as well as resolution occurs.

Our two examples above are real clients. In Tom’s situation, he needed some help learning new sales skills but had been afraid to ask for help. He feared he would be labeled as “incompetent.” In Tami’s situation, she did not really understand what was expected of her. Her inexperienced boss recognized his limitations to guide her development in mastering the skills required for success in her new position. He got her the help she needed from another department. In the end, both became successful performers.

Not all situations work out so nicely. However, if the boss has invested the time and energy to get to know the employee as an individual, they can have an open and honest dialogue in which the “right” answer will appear. The traditional management approach focuses on the employee fixing a “weakness”. The relationship-leadership approach looks below the surface to determine what is really going on and then builds on the employee’s talents and strengths.