Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, April 06, 2007

Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers 2

My previous post on this issue focused on getting to understand the problem.

You now understand the problem and have to deal with the individual in question. What do you do? Again, while there are no easy answers, there are a number of practical things that you can do that will make things easier on both sides.

Note that I say easier on both sides. Depending on the circumstances, nothing may stop things being very unpleasant. But you have an obligation to the other person as well as yourself to makes things as easy as possible.

The Importance of Esteem

A very wise Ndarala colleague of mine called Tim Russell developed what he calls the microskillstm approach to interpersonal communication. Tim is an international trainer and management consultant with major clients on four continents.

Tim started by breaking all forms of communication down into a small number of classes. Examples include reflecting, summarising, give information, give opinion. He then went a stage further and linked each class to the effect on the other person's esteem.

Here Tim makes a very particular point.

All communication has some effect on self-esteem. When we nod or murmur mm mh during a conversation, we increase the other person's esteem by showing that we are listening. When we give an opinion, we may increase or decrease the other person's esteem depending on whether or not they agree with it, on what the impact is on the other person.

Because the effectiveness of communication is affected by listener response, the impact on esteem has a critical affect on the success of the communication. This needs to be taken into account in structuring discussions.

I make this point because conversations about performance, and especially poor performance, are some of the most difficult conversations of all since they bear upon a key thing for most people, the way we perform and are seen to perform in our job. The negative esteem effect can destroy the very thing you want to achieve through the conversation. The challenge is to manage this.

So how might you do this?

Know what You want to Achieve

The starting point is knowing what you want to achieve. If your primary objective is to gain information, say finding out what in fact is wrong, then you obviously need to follow a different approach than that holding if the person is to be fired.

I know that this sounds self-evident, but too often people rush in without a clear idea in their mind as to the end-point of the conversation.

Keep the Message Simple

People can only absorb so much before tuning out. This holds in all cases, more so where significant emotional content is involved. So you need to keep things simple, focusing just on core points.

Fit your Approach to the Message

You need to fit your approach to your message.

If your objective is to gather information, to perhaps confirm or scope a problem, then you start by giving information, explaining your concern. Then follow with questions to let the other person talk, to flesh things out. Summarise as the discussion proceeds to ensure that you have things right, that you have understood what the other person is saying. Then at the end summarise again, outlining conclusions reached including any agreed action steps.

If, on the other hand, you are going to fire the person, you do not want to get involved in an argument. The other person may well be upset, but you need to be able to handle this. So in this case you focus on giving information, why the action is being taken, what is involved.

There are a range of alternatives in the middle of these two parameter cases.

As a general rule, the greater the problem the more you focus on giving information, on summarising, less on asking questions.

I am not saying here that you stop the other person talking, although you may need to through judicious summarising. The key point is that, as a general rule, the greater the problem the more the purpose of the conversation is transmission of information to the other side, the less receipt of information from the other side.

Giving Information versus Giving Opinions

You will notice that I have used the words give information as opposed to giving an opinion. I have done advisedly because your objective is to explain, to give information and then, in most cases, to gain agreement as to next steps.

Previous Posts in this Series

March 12 2007: Common Management Problems - managing up

November 20 2006: Common Management Problems - the isolation of being boss

November 23 2006: Common Management Problems - the overenthusiastic boss

March 18, 2007: Common Management Problems - dealing with poor performers

March 27, 2007: Praise from Martin Hoffman for the Common Management Problems Series

Postscript

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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