It is not unusual for a new manager
to find that his or her predecessor has, maybe for years, tolerated
performance from a team of a lower standard than they are willing to
accept. Not only has the newcomer to deal with the normal problems of
gaining acceptance from the team, he or she has to step up to some
difficult conversations early on in their relationship with people who
are probably going to be resistant to changing their behavior.
How do you convince a person to improve their performance when they have been paid, and maybe even promoted, for years, for what you consider to be sub-standard performance? This is a conversation that needs some careful planning or you could find yourself in a difficult and unpleasant conversation. There are three key points you should keep in mind.
You need to start by looking to yourself.
Is it just you? Are you the only one who is unhappy with the behavior of this person? Are your expectations and standards realistic? Does the person contribute special skills in one area that compensates for poor performance in some other area? You need to first gather hard data on their performance and as far as you can, you need to check that your view of it is shared by others. If it is not, you may have to accept that the only realistic solution to the problem is that you change your expectations of the person.
The second step is to look to the person.
What are you telling yourself about them? Do you think that they are deliberately coming to work for a free ride? Do you think they have a malicious intent to pull down the performance of the department? Is it not just as likely that by withholding feedback, others have contributed to their lack of performance? Is it not possible that they have no idea they are underperforming? Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt is the most respectful and safe way to approach a difficult conversation like this. If you feel and show respectfulness toward the person, there is least likelihood that they will react defensively or with anger.
Thirdly, do not drag up all the history. Start from where you are now. Use a few clear, specific facts to describe the current situation as you see it, even if this means putting off the conversation until you have first hand experience of the performance standard. Then explain the gap between what you expect and their current performance. Explain the implications of this level of performance. Then ask for input from the person and listen carefully to whatever they say.
Only when you feel that the facts are out in the open and that you both share an understanding of the situation, should you ask for ideas on ways in which performance can be improved. Agree on a plan and set dates for follow up and feedback. It may take a little time, and may require some ongoing coaching and support, but it is quite likely that the person will be grateful for your honesty and will respond by trying their best to change their behavior.
This is a leadership issue. If you are seen to be confronting issues that have been side stepped in the past and are clearly not prepared to tolerate poor performance, you are sending a very positive signal about the leadership style your new team can expect from you in future.
About the Author:
Maureen Collins has a B.Sc. degree in Psychology from Edinburgh University and over 25 years of consulting experience. She specializes in communication skills in the business world. In Straight Talk, she trains people how to handle difficult conversations, on difficult topics, with difficult people.