There is no question that dealing with employees’ performance is one of the most challenging — but crucial — aspects of a manager’s job. While most discussions around performance are heavily slanted towards attracting top talents or bowing out underperformers, not much is said about how to ensure your middling average joes are a priority or whether promoting your star performers is always the best decision to make.
Use the Performance and Potential Matrix outlined in my Power Read ‘Frameworks for Effective Performance Management’ to determine where each member of your team stands. When it comes to low-performing, low-potential staff, the prime dilemma is: how do you know if more training is the answer or if it is time to let them go? Personally, I wouldn’t opt for the firing scenario, at least not immediately. Firing is, overall, an unpleasant affair and should be left as a last resort - unless it’s a compliance issue, a violation of the code of business ethics, or a character and integrity issue, of course. You should always give your staff the time and opportunity to change and grow.
A good manager should be able to identify ahead of time whom among their staff may fall short. If you’re doing regular catch ups with your team, you would be able to pick out the weaker links who need that extra push. Have an honest chat with them early on and share constructive feedback on where and how they can improve. The accountability should lie on the managers to identify this ahead of time, to avoid any awkward last-minute firing situations. When the time comes for you to officially review their performance and make a decision about their future in the company, the bad news wouldn’t come as a surprise to either party.
Typically, I’ve found that having an early conversation with underperforming staff really helps. They either end up choosing to leave amicably because it’s clear the job’s not a right fit for them (no one wants to be in a job where they’re under-performing) or improve. If it’s the former, the departure is usually then on good terms and no action is needed on your part. If they choose to stay, I find that the person usually makes a concerted effort to improve.
How you frame this conversation is key - you have to be genuine about helping them grow into their roles. The official process looks something like this: I usually give a verbal notice at first; then, an official warning, along with a tracklist of targets they’ll need to meet if they’d like to stay. This, for the most part, has proven to be a reasonable and effective method. You can gauge their improvement over a 90-day period, but do budget this depending on how much time you can actually afford to let your staff fine-tune their performance and productivity.
If I do decide to make a decision to let a candidate go, I usually step back and ask myself two questions. Firstly, if I were hiring for this position again, would I hire this candidate? And secondly, if the person does leave, am I confident enough to find a better candidate?
The answer to the first question isn’t necessarily always a no. There are many reasons why a candidate falls short of his role, one of which could be due to an error in the recruitment process where expectations weren’t clearly outlined. If that’s the case, it might be worth heading back to the drawing board to establish new targets. As for the second question, if you don’t feel confident in finding someone better, perhaps there are ways you can step in to help them become better in their roles. The answers to these two questions will give you a better and rational sense of what the right next step is - without any emotions clouding your judgement.
My personal view is that it’s not realistic for everyone to be a star player in a company. Chances are, if everyone is a star player, you’ll be presented with an entirely different set of problems where strong individuals (and opinions) clash. As much as it is important to retain your top talent, it is equally important to keep your dependable, middle-of-the-road staff.
Check in with them on their aspirations and what they hope to achieve in the company. If they are performing satisfactorily and content with their present roles, that’s great. Not everyone is vying for a promotion, and you don’t want to promote staff who aren’t actually looking to rise through the ranks. For those who are eyeing a progression but aren’t quite ready yet, sit them down for an open and honest chat about why a promotion isn’t on the cards and what they can do to get there. How to best manage individuals in this group truly depends on each case, but all in all, it is key that you keep them happy.
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Former Chairman and EVP, APAC