How to deal with poor performing staff

How to deal with poor performing staff

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

How to deal with poor performing staff 

By Mark Wager

Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general born over two and a half thousand years ago and most likely the greatest military strategist of all time. King Wu summoned Sun Tzu and requested a demonstration of his leadership skills. Sun Tzu was asked to turn the Kings concubines into soldiers. Upon accepting the challenge sun Tzu divided the harem  into two large groups of 90 with a single concubine appointed as the commander of each company. Sun Tzu ordered the concubines to turn right. In response they giggled. Sun Tzu paused  and apologised  to the King that his instructions were not clear so he reiterated the command. Yet again the concubines giggled. This time Sun Tzu ordered their execution and beheaded the two concubines and appointed two new women as the commanders of the two companies. This time when Sun Tzu asked them to turn to the right, the concubines followed his instructions immediately and without hesitation.

“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of the officers” – Sun Tzu

Even though Sun Tzu lived two and a half thousand years ago his lessons are still applicable today. Clear precise communication is the key to managing poor performance. It is  the responsibility of the manager or the person giving the instructions to make sure that expectations are clear. If  the instructions are clear then it’s the responsibility of the individual performing the task. The only difference between now and Sun Tzu’s time is that you can’t hack down an employee with a sword every time they do something wrong.

When I coach managers without doubt the most common area of their job which they are having difficulty with is the area of managing poor performers. The good news is that this area can be learnt and people end up embracing this aspect of their role instead of what a lot of managers do today and that is ignore and brush the problem under the carpet. The most difficult area that managers have to deal with is having the correct mindset to deal with the problem in the first place.

Managing poor performance is not an option it’s your job

I recall working with one manager who had an employee who was very capable in her role but had a major problem with time keeping. The employee had high levels of absences most of which were accompanied by very flimsy excuses. When she did turn up to work she was often late. Once she was at her desk her work was good but the problem was getting her to her desk. The manager refused to address the issues with the hope it would just rectify itself. It got so bad that I had to intervene. I sat down with the manager concerned and explained how she could coach the individual and how to deal with the situation. The manager seemed happy and promised me she would deal with it.  A few  weeks later the situation was the same and I found out that the manager didn’t follow my instructions. I had to take the matter further.

If you do not deal with poor performance, you are a coward, not a leader.

The manager had many excuses why she didn’t take the action that I requested her to. All of the excuses are common excuses with managers who are having difficulty addressing poor performers.

I’m busy with other stuff

Things will get better

She’s a good worker

I don’t want her to be demoralised.

If you are a manager who has poor performers some of the above excuses may seem familiar and you might also agree with some of the statements. If you do then you need to read the following statement very carefully. Stop calling yourself a leader because you are not. A leader puts the needs of the team ahead of their own personal needs. The reasons you are not dealing with poor performance are purely selfish. You don’t want to be unpopular, you are  a coward and you are letting everyone down including the poor performer.

If you are a manager with poor performing staff, it’s your fault and no-one else’s.

Based on over twenty years of managerial experience and many years of leadership coaching I can without question confirm that the above statements are just excuses. Something for managers to hide behind. If you are surrounded with poor performing staff then it’s your fault no-one else’s. Deal with it because it’s your job. I sat down with the manager in question and apologised for not making my expectations clear and I explained again how I expected her to deal with the poor performer and the consequences if she didn’t. The manager sat down and had a conversation with the employee and discovered the employee was having problems both with alcohol and looking after her young child. It was a problem that was never addressed. Once it was we were able to work with the employee to find a mutually agreeable solution. In this case it was temporary adjustment to her hours and counselling support. Immediately her absences stopped, time-keeping improved and within a short period she was able to return back to full duties.

Good managers never sack employees, employees get themselves the sack

As a manager don’t assume you know the reason for the poor performance. Chances are you are wrong. In my experience I’ve seen many situations that on the surface seem beyond hope yet with the right type of coaching these same situations can be  turned around. A win-win situation for the employee and the employer. The employer saves money which would otherwise cost an organisation for loss of productivity and any potential recruitment and training costs that would come with replacement of an employee. The employee on the other hand becomes far more engaged and connected to the organisation than ever before.

While a win-win situation is the most desired outcome, not all situations can reach this outcome and there will be occasions that the employee has to be exited. This is something not to be avoided, as long as you are clear with your expectations and the consequences of not meeting these expectations then your conscience  should be clear. A good manager never sacks employees, employees get themselves the sack.

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. - Sun Tzu

About the Author:

Mark Wager is New Zealand's leading Leadership Coach. To contact Mark regarding Coaching for new Managers, Leadership Coaching and MBTI courses please use the enquiry form below

Posted: Sunday 7 April 2013


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