Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers

One question that I often get asked is the best way to deal with under performing staff. There is no perfect answer here, but there are a few practical things that you can do to reduce/deal with the issue.

The Manager as the Problem

In looking at my suggestions, bear in mind that poor management is the single most important cause of poor staff performance. So you need to look at your own management approach as well the under performing staff member.

Catch the Problem Early

One thing that I found is that too often emerging problems are either not recognised or not dealt with immediately, allowing a minor problem to grow into a major one.

This can be a special problem in professional services where people often work individually and in a degree of isolation from others. In more conventional organisations, day to day interactions - work and social - between manager and staff makes it much easier for the manager to see an issue and deal with it on the spot.

One of the reasons why I support (and here) simple management related appraisal systems not linked to pay is that they provide a regular structured way of looking at performance that can compensate to some degree for other weaknesses.

In the meantime, you can find out a lot, keep in touch, by asking simple questions.

Define the Problem: Get the Facts

Most people want to do a good job and be recognised for so doing, so you need to understand both the nature of the under performance and the possible reasons for it.

This may not be easy. Often, managers simply feel that something is not quite right, that the person is simply not performing in the way they would expect. Sometimes people seem to be performing well along one dimension, not on another.

Step one here is to write down your concerns and then test by looking at the facts. Sometimes the results may surprise you. To illustrate by example.

I had one staff member who was seen as creating work, as doing things that were outside her charter. There was considerable resistance to paying her overtime.

I established that she was indeed doing things that were outside her formal charter as laid down by a recent reorganisation. I also found the reorganisation itself was flawed, that mission critical work elements had not been properly recognised and that the staff member had in fact been forced to do the extra just to keep things going.

In another case, I found an undefined feeling that our receptionist was not doing her job properly, that she was away too much. All that was required here was a simple check of our records. This showed a pattern over some time of varying Friday and Monday sick days. So in this case there was indeed a problem.

Take a Deep Breath

Okay, you have got the facts. Now what do you do about it?

Obviously this depends on the nature of the problem. However, my usual advice is pause, to take a deep breath. Too often, people go into see problem, fix problem mode. This can be disastrous.

Take the time to think your course of action through.

What options do you have? Can you address it indirectly by, for example, changing work flows? Or your own approach? What is the fair thing to do?

Once you have done this, then you will have a better feel for what to do.

I will extend this analysis in my next post looking at common mistakes people make in acting on staff problems.

Previous Posts in this Series


The posts on dealing with poor performers now form the building blocks for a series on depression. The full depression series follows.

Precursor posts:

The Depression series:

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