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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Resolving Performance Issues Caused by Lack of Skill or Ability


Kevin Bong

In the SANS Leadership and Management Competencies course book, the slide titled "Counseling to Change Behavior" states:

Do not discipline employees who are unable to perform a task. Discipline those who are able to perform a task, but are unwilling or unmotivated to succeed.

What should a manager do when she suspects the employee is unable to perform a task? This paper will outline the steps a manager can take to react to an employee who is underperforming because they lack the skills or knowledge to perform their job responsibilities.

Prepare to discuss the issue with the employee

If an employee is underperforming, it is pretty clear that you will need to meet with the employee to understand the cause of the performance issue, determine if the employee has the capacity and motivation to overcome the issue, and establish a plan for resolving the issue. The manager should not hurry into this meeting, careful preparation on the manager’s part can make the difference between achieving these goals in the meeting and having the meeting head in a detrimental direction.

A key goal of meeting with the employee is to confirm that the problem is ability, not motivation, direction, priority setting or other factors, that’s causing the performance issue. There are a number of indicators that a manager can look for to determine if a performance issue is due to insufficient skills or knowledge. These include recent changes to job responsibilities, the questions that an associate asks the manager or peers to complete their tasks, and the types of mistakes and quality problems that the manager sees.[1] The manager should consider these factors in preparation for the meeting.

The manager should enter the meeting with a clear understanding of what is expected of the employee and which expectations are not being met. It is important for the manager to accurately define the standard to which the employee is expected to perform the task. The standard should be based on the job, not the employee. The standard should be achievable. The standard should be specific and measurable, and time oriented. The standard should be written to ensure it is clearly communicated and can serve as a consistent reminder to the employee and the manager.[2]

Conduct a meeting with the associate
You want to conduct the meeting with the employee in an environment where it is safe for him to speak openly and be honest. Part of building this environment involves the logistics of the meeting, such as holding at a convenient time or holding it in a neutral place. Much of building this environment involves your approach to the meeting. You want to demonstrate to the employee that you respect him and that you share a mutual purpose - you both want him to succeed at his job.[3]

At the beginning of the meeting with the employee you should share your concerns and the purpose for the meeting. You need to recognize at this point that it is likely the employee’s interpretation of the situation is different from yours, and he or she may shut down or get defensive if they feel you are attacking them. You can help to contain this by separating the facts about the issue from your interpretation of those facts. Start out by identifying the issue using facts and specifics about what occurred. Facts are the basic events that occurred, and as such should not be controversial or carry emotion or interpretation. From the facts you should then share your interpretation - "Seeing the process completed incorrectly leads me to think you don’t know how to perform the correct process."[4]

When sharing this information, you need to talk tentatively but still be assertive. Talking tentatively means when you share your interpretation you label it as your interpretation rather than trying to disguise it as fact. Instead of just stating your interpretations, begin them with statements like "I think that", "I’m beginning to wonder if", or "In my opinion". Talking tentatively helps to keep the person open by portraying an uncertain view, and reduce defensiveness.[5]

Remember, tentative does not mean wimpy. Be assertive - take action in a positive, sincere, and confident manner that maintains respect for your associate. You can soften the delivery, but don’t water down the message or give mixed messages. The associate may often disagree with your assessment, remember that your organization has hired and entrusted you to accurately assess the employee’s performance.[6]

You’ve shared the facts and your interpretation, now is where your listening skills come in. Listen to understand the employee’s interpretation. Be sure your appraisal is tentative; be willing to change your appraisal if the employee’s input convinces you that you were wrong.[7]

An important factor for success is for the manager and the employee to agree on the cause of the performance issue. Managers tend to view the worker as the cause of a poor performance episode, whereas employees tend to blame situational characteristics.[8] A worker may become negative and embittered if they feel their supervisor is blaming them for what they perceive as difficult work situations.

Once the manager and the associate have agreed that the issue is that the employee doesn’t have the knowledge to perform the task, the discussion should focus on determining if the individual has the skills and talent to learn the task, and if the individual is motivated to learn the task. Again, the manager should share her observations, thoughts and concerns in a respectful and straightforward manner, and give the employee an opportunity to share their ideas as well.

Develop a performance improvement plan
The Performance Improvement Plan is a written document that functions almost like a contract between the manager and the employee. It is a tool that helps ensure agreement and understanding for what’s expected from the associate and the ramifications if expectations are not met.

Many organizations have a process and template for the development of a performance improvement plan. The manager should work with the organization’s Human Resources Department to develop the plan, this helps ensure consistent and fair treatment of employees across the company. The manager should also try to involve the employee in the development of the performance improvement plan. This helps to get buy-in, and makes the employee take responsibility for their own development. Key components to include on the Performance Improvement Plan include:
  • The written standard to which the employee is to complete the task or responsibility
  • Specific examples where expectations were not met
  • A time period (often 30 or 90 days) within which the employee is expected to make improvements
  • Milestones and check points where progress will be measured during the improvement period
  • The indicators that the manager will look for to measure if progress is being made
  • The support and resources that will be provided to the associate to aid in learning the task or skill
  • Consequences if improvement goals are not met
  • Additional sources of information or support, such as the employee handbook and contact info for the employee’s Human Resources representative
  • Signatures of both the manager and the employee signifying understanding and agreement.[9]
Coach and mentor
At this point, the employee understands the need to learn the skill or task and is motivated to do so. Now the manager takes the role of a coach or mentor to help them achieve this goal. There are a number of things a manager can do to set up an employee to succeed at learning
  • Provide training opportunities in different formats. Different people learn differently, try to find a learning format that works for the associate. This is especially true if the employee is struggling because they failed to learn the task the first time through training. Repetition can also help a person learn.
  • Provide the other resources the associate needs to learn. Examples of this could be test systems or data, or assigning them a mentor or providing other assistance from other team members.
  • Give the associate opportunities to put the skills learned to use right away
  • Allow the associate to put additional focus on this task, perhaps by reprioritizing or temporarily reassigning other responsibilities.
  • Give frequent assessment of progress and feedback.[10]
Throughout the learning process, and following after, it is important for the manager to follow though in monitoring and measuring the associate’s improvement. The manager should periodically review the associate’s progress against the Performance Improvement Plan. The manager should closely watch that milestones and other goals are met, and react quickly when they are sliding or appear to be missed. The manager should celebrate successes by providing the associate recognition when goals and milestones are met. Continue to make the associate accountable for their performance by reinforcing the need for them to produce results with high standards.[11]

If it is not going to work
The manager may decide at many different points through the process that the associate will not be able to adequately learn the new skill necessary to fulfill their responsibilities. Associate does not have knowledge or talents necessary for the task, the associate may not be motivated to learn, or there may be other outside factors that prevent the associate from learning the task.

At this point the manager needs to consider how critical this task is to the employee’s role. Often employees will struggle with new tasks that are outside of the core responsibilities they are familiar with. Not everyone is good at everything, if the unachieved goal is not part of the associates core job a manager may often be able to find another way to get the task done (shifting responsibilities in the team, outsourcing, etc.). This can allow the associate to continue to do the responsibilities they succeed at. If this is the approach that the manager chooses, it is important for the manager to share the reasons for the decision with the associate and how that decision could impact the associate’s career development path.

If the missed goal is a core part of the associate’s job role, many times the only alternatives left for the associate are reassignment within the organization, demotion, or termination. Trying to keep an associate in the "wrong" position is very damaging in the long run. The individual will not find their work fulfilling, will not be successful and will not grow. The morale of the entire team will suffer as other team members take up an unfair share of the load.

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1. Brounstein, Marty. Coaching and Mentoring for Dummies. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, 2000. p. 220-221.
2. Kirkpatrick, Donald. How to Improve Performance Through Appraisal and Coaching. New York: AMACOM, 1982. p. 41.
3. Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. Highstown, NJ: McGraw-Hill, 2002. p. 88.
4. Patterson, p. 142.
5. Patterson, p. 132.
6. Brounstein, p. 32.
7. Kirkpatrick, p. 62.
8. Smither, James. Performance Appraisal: State of the Art in Practice. Sand Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1998. p. 155.
9. Heathfield, Susan. "Performance Management: Performance Improvement Plan". 18 December 2006. http://humanresources.about.com/od/performancemanagement/a/PIP.htm
10. Brounstein, p. 34.
11. Brounstein, p. 35.