Pull the Plug on Poor Performance

Let under-performing employees stick around, and they can drag down the whole organization's attitude and results.

As a young manager, eager to please my boss, I looked forward to every Friday afternoon meeting to show my solid weekly goal numbers and see how they compared with the other department heads. I loved the competition and the victory. Yet, every week I was amazed when the same department manager had the worst numbers followed by the lamest excuses and profound silences when asked questions. It became painful to watch him stand there and take his verbal beating, but ultimately the excuses were accepted!

After months of watching this, I couldn't understand how the plant manager I once respected tolerated these excuses and allowed this manager to negatively impact other departments because of his poor performance. The running joke was the department manager must have had compromising pictures of some dramatic indiscretion by the plant manager.

I don't know if the plant manager took pity on this department head, liked having a whipping boy, or just didn't have the guts to let him go. I do know it eroded the performance of the entire plant as all department performances were reliant on each other in a manufacturing setting. As performance numbers dropped, other department managers started using the same excuses as the “Whipping Boy.” Poor performance took over, where once the norm was exceeding expectations.

The plant manager failed to pull the plug on the excuse machine, and the poor performance attitude took over. Why should you act swiftly at the first sight of poor performance in your team?

The Poor Performer Impact

Research shows that underperforming employees are more likely to be absent from work, fail to meet their work objectives, and have generally lower standards of work than their colleagues. The longer the manager allows this behavior to go uncorrected, more fellow employees will follow this unabated attitude, and poor performance becomes the new expectation.

The impact on the organization as a whole can be dramatic, since 92 percent of human resources practitioners say poor individual performance affects motivation and morale of fellow employees. More than half of human resources executives say poor performers are responsible for more complaints from customers.

Poor performers frequently deliver the “Iceberg Effect,” where only the tip of their negative impact is seen by managers. The volume of their negative impact, from eroding morale and work ethics of fellow employees to unnoticed mistakes to job duties not being performed that are now being done by fellow employees to keep the flow of work moving, slips by without notice. The impact is significant. The other implication to the manager who allows this to continue is loss of respect from the other employees he manages.

If you are committed to performing at a high level, if you expect a pinnacle performance from everyone, then you as the manager must pull the plug on the excuse machine and no longer carry along poor performers.

Identifying the Poor Performer

When looking for ways to improve performance look for the areas where the poor performer is dragging down the rest of the team by not performing to expectations. The follow symptoms are from a behavioral observation study on performance:

  1. Quality of Work

    Increase in number of errors, lack of attention to detail, inconsistency of quality, does not take time to do job right, appears rushed, not thorough, work often incomplete, work produced below acceptable standards, does not follow procedures, directions and/or use appropriate format.

  2. Dependability

    Absenteeism, multiple instances of unauthorized leave, excessive use of leave, frequent Monday and/or Friday absences, repeated absences (particularly if they follow a pattern), fails to initiate action necessary to maintain commitments or meet deadlines, inattentive, leave without pay status.

  3. Internal/External Relationships

    Disagreeable, openly mistrusts many people, easily and frequently angered or hurt, obstructive, slows work by others, rigid, unable to work with others in new ways, deteriorating relationships with co-workers/supervisors/customers, disrupts activities of the workplace, inability to gain commitment from others, complains, is hostile, argumentative, poor relationships on the job, overreacts to real or imagined criticisms, unstable relationships with co-workers, unreasonable resentments held onto over time, complaints from co-workers, blames others.

  4. Volume of Work

    Overwhelmed by realistic workload, work piles up, makes commitments and does not meet them, unavailable for extra work, rigid, unable to increase workload when needed, volatile, easily upset, inconsistent pace of work.

Once you've identified the poor performer based on these indicators, you have to take the proper steps before your reputation and the results in your area of responsibility suffer tremendously.

Taking Action on Poor Performance

The poor performing department manager I mentioned earlier eventually did lose his job. The greatest disservice this poor performer received from his boss was no attempt to correct the problem until it was too late and had gone on too long.

Top-performing managers take great care to set their employees up for success instead of catching them at failure. One manager I've worked with has a “red line,” as he calls it. A tachometer on a car has a red line to indicate the motor is over-revving; continued use in this zone will blow the engine. This manager uses his red line system to indicate when an employee has entered a danger zone and needs his focused assistance before the employee “blows up” and loses his job.

Poor performers need what I call “teachable moments” when they fail to meet expectations. The manager needs to take these failures and turn them into opportunities to teach the correct methods, approach and attitude. Early detection and correction gives the poor performer a chance to learn and turn — to receive coaching and turn around the bad behaviors before those behaviors become the norm.

Consistent communication concerning quality of work, dependability, working relationships and volume of work with each employee on their individual performance is key to creating pinnacle performance. Some managers call this babysitting, and one told me, “If I have to hold their hands that much, I don't need them and I'll do it myself.” This is the talk of a poor performing manager because a manager in today's working world is only as good as the team he is leading. In other words, if you aren't guiding and directing your employees for pinnacle performance, then you are getting less than the best they have to offer.

Set Out Key Actions for Correcting Poor Performance

I recently made deleting weight a serious goal for this year. No, not losing weight, because when you lose something you want to find it again; this is deleting weight never to be found again. This is an area of my life in which I've had poor performance, so I hired a personal trainer for consistent communication to correct my bad behaviors. Does she have a magic formula? No. Does she know of a magic pill or fad diet I must begin using? No.

What she does have is a pattern of key activities and follow-up tools that are designed to keep me on track and correct my poor performance. We have a weekly debriefing and a constant increase of weight-lifting goals based on her observation of my performance. I told her I wasn't looking for a pom pom cheerleader-type instructor; I wanted someone who would push and teach me better performance methods. Did she push me? The first day she had me a breath away from throwing up!

Correcting poor performance should be challenging, should be well structured and should have consistent follow up. Changing personal behaviors is not easy and requires significant retooling.

Design specific key actions to correct the poor performances negatively impacting your team of employees, other departments and ultimately the customer and the bottom line. Follow up weekly in the beginning to ensure the new behaviors are taking hold and modifications are happening. The key to addressing poor performance is in knowing when to be patient and when to provide relief for everyone involved by providing the opportunity to the poor performer to find another job to better fit his skills.

Use the outlined four identifiers to detect where you are dealing with poor performance, then set up your actions for turning that employee from a poor performer to a pinnacle performer. As a leader, there is nothing more rewarding than teaching and leading someone to great personal success.

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