Manager’s Guide to Addressing Performance Issues

Kevin Campbell

Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp

August 27, 2019

Addressing performance issues can be challenging. Culture Amp, an employee feedback and analytics platform, has helped companies ask over 850,000 employees: “When it’s clear that someone at your organization is not delivering in their role, do people at your company do something about it?” In 2018, only 45% of employees agreed or strongly agreed with that question. That means more than half of the employees surveyed on our platform feel uncertain—or worse—about how performance issues are handled within their organizations.

It’s easy to understand why this is the case. As organizations move away from yearly performance appraisals and toward ongoing conversations, manager enablement is often left out. Without the right mindsets or conversation prompts, performance issues often go unaddressed.

Arming your managers with a good set of thinking tools and an arsenal of powerful coaching questions can help take away some of the discomfort and awkwardness often found in these types of discussions.

Discussing performance issues requires more than just the right words; it also includes having the right mindset. Specifically, there are five key mindsets that are critical to having effective discussions around performance: 

  • Adopt a growth mindset
  • Make the discussion for the employee, not the manager
  • Help employees find their next dream job
  • Foster intrinsic motivation
  • Explore situational factors

In this blog, we discuss each of these mindsets and provide prompts to help you put them into practice.

1. Adopt a growth mindset

If you’re not familiar with Stanford University professor Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, let’s fix that now. A growth mindset is the belief that your ability to attain any outcome or desirable quality can be achieved through effort and perseverance. Dweck’s research has shown connections between leaders with a growth mindset and employees who push through adversity, bounce back quickly in the face of failure, and put effort into learning from setbacks.

Drawing on Culture Amp’s collective intelligence of over 2,300 customers, we see that in our global all industries benchmark, employees who believe their company has a growth mindset are much more likely to be engaged. People who give high ratings to the question: “My company believes that people can always greatly improve their talents and abilities,” have 19% higher engagement scores than those who give the lowest ratings on that question.      

This is important because people will not apply effort if they think their effort will be wasted. If you have already determined that your employee’s ability to perform is fixed and cannot be improved, then there’s really no point in attempting to turn things around. The truth is, you can never really know the limit of one’s ability to grow their talent or potential. In fact, we don’t know if there is a limit at all. 

Here are some useful questions and prompts you can use to put yourself and your employees into a growth mindset:

  • Think about a time you performed in a way in which you didn’t think you were capable
  • Think about an important lesson you learned from your mistakes
  • What are the exceptions to the “rules” of your personality? For example: if you consider yourself a shy person, think about a time when you didn’t act shy
  • What have you gotten better at over the years?
  • Ten years from now, what will you have learned from this situation?

Here are some things L&D and HR leaders should consider when thinking about a growth mindset:

  • Do your high-potential programs box people into a “haves” versus “have-nots” mentality? 
  • Do people at your organization truly believe everyone can greatly improve their talents and abilities?
  • Are you using nine-box approaches to talent management that identify some people as low potential? What does that say about their ability to grow? 
  • Are you using a program like Strengths-based Development? If so, is it being done in a way that promotes a growth mindset
  • Do under-performers and managers see “performance improvement plans” as legal tools that help protect the employer in termination cases or do they see them as ways to help employees get back on track and excel? 

2. The discussion is for the employee, not the manager

Good performance discussions are about the employee, not the manager. If you approach performance discussions in a way that’s too prescriptive, you’re seeking to satisfy your own agenda rather than helping employees improve their performance. When discussing performance, it should feel developmental, not evaluative. In music, sports, and performing arts, people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for coaches to pinpoint areas where they need to improve because it’s for their benefit. When you shift the focus away from your goals and onto employees’ development, feelings of defensiveness fade away. 

As counterintuitive as it might seem, putting your employee’s long-term career ambitions in the driver’s seat will actually make you a more effective manager for them in their current role. After aggregating data from more than 50,000 respondents, reporting to over 7,000 managers, from nearly 100 companies, Culture Amp has found the most impactful driver of manager effectiveness is having a good understanding of their associate’s longer-term career aspirations (even if it includes roles outside of their current company). Managers can offer learning & development opportunities to help employees reach their career goals. For example, if people management is a goal of an employee, managers can offer online courses on Udemy for Business like New Manager Training in Essential Skills to help prepare their employees for the next step in their career.

3. Help employees find their next dream job 

Culture Amp’s CEO Didier Elzinga asks new hires how he can help them find their next job after Culture Amp. In his words, “If I can’t be your dream job, I want to be the best step to your dream job.” This is especially true for underperformers. If you end up needing to exit an employee, it is better if it’s done in a way that enables them to pursue their passions. This also leaves them with a good impression of you and your company.

In a recent roundtable discussion with CHROs on connecting the dots between engagement and performance, I was impressed by how many of the leaders echoed this same sentiment. One CHRO from a major commercial bank commented, “I have had many experiences where poor performers were put on an improvement plan and ended up thanking us. This was especially true in instances where they went on to do something else.”

Here are some useful questions and prompts you can use to make it clear that this discussion is about finding their next dream job:

  • As you look at your career overall, what is something you would like to move closer to this year? What are the ways I can support you in this?
  •  How does this role fit into the rest of your life? What does this job help you accomplish overall?
  • When it comes to your overall career—what do you really want?

Here are some things L&D and HR leaders should consider when helping underperforming employees find their dream job:

  • Do your performance improvement plans help people think about what type of role or organization is the right fit for them? 
  • Do you encourage open conversations about people’s “next job”? 
  • Does your company have a robust alumni program that connects people after they leave your organization?  

4. Foster intrinsic motivation 

One of the oldest and most useful ways to think about your approach to management is Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y from the 1960s. Theory X managers tend to take a distrustful view of their employees, and assume that they dislike work, avoid responsibility, and need to be threatened or enticed by extrinsic motivators in order to perform. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, assume that people are intrinsically motivated and naturally want to improve their performance. Generally speaking, Theory Y managers outperform Theory X managers—especially when it comes to leading and motivating modern knowledge workers.

In fact, a 2015 panel study of 13,510 US adults found that the most important attribute employees look for when considering whether to take a job with another company was the ability to do what they do best. People rated doing what they do best as more important than an increase in income, job security, and even their own well-being.

In practical terms, this means that part of your role in discussing poor performance is to foster your employee’s sense of intrinsic motivation. But don’t be fooled—when it comes to motivation, there are more types than just intrinsic and extrinsic. In fact, research by Ryan and Deci has shown that motivation lies on a continuum with fully self-motivated on one hand, and fully based on contingent rewards on the other. In between, you will find motivations such as feeding one’s ego and self-worth on the slightly more external side and doing things that are in line with one’s values and personal beliefs on the slightly more internal side.

This is important to note because the way you frame your discussion can either impede or bolster your employee’s sense of internal motivation. Consider beginning performance conversations with something similar to this statement:

In our discussions, my hope is that you will leave with a desire to improve your performance. Not because you feel like you have to do it or because you need to do it, but because it is a personal choice that you have made for your own good and because you believe it is important to you.

Here are some useful questions you can use to draw out your employee’s more intrinsic motivations:

  • What do you genuinely like about your work?
  • What would you like to do more of?
  • What situations bring out the best in you?
  • When do you feel the most pride in your work?
  • Of all the things you do well, what do you do best?
  • What kinds of tasks give you energy at work?

Here are some things L&D and HR leaders should consider when exploring how to bolster intrinsic motivation: 

  • Are your learning programs voluntary or are people “volun-told” to be there? 
  • Do your programs account for differences in individuals’ motivations, strengths, and interests?  
  • Are people able to move between departments and roles so they can find the right fit? 

5. Explore situational factors  

Unfortunately, as human beings, we are prone to biases that make it hard to recognize the innate drive that employees possess to be good at what they do. One of which is the fundamental attribution error: our tendency to attribute the behaviors of other people to their motivations rather than their situations. In other words, we are more likely to assume that Kevin is late to the meeting because Kevin doesn’t think the meeting is important than to assume that Kevin got into a fender bender, was busy helping an elderly person cross the street, or was tied up saving a puppy from a burning building—and a bear. Therefore, it is helpful to draw out the situational factors that are leading to performance issues so they can be addressed.

Here are some useful questions you can use to draw out the situational factors that might be impeding performance:

  • What does it take to be successful in your role? (Listen for gaps in understanding)
  • What aspects of your role do you find unclear or confusing?
  • When do you feel conflicted about priorities in your role? What can I do to help?
  • What things do you need to perform at your best?
  • What distracts you from working at your best? What are the ways I can help eliminate those distractions?
  • What aspects of your work do you dislike or find particularly challenging?
  • What do you expect of me as your leader? What can I do to support you and your work?  

Here are some things L&D and HR leaders should consider when exploring the situational factors affecting performance:

  • Are some managers having a higher than usual number of low-performing employees? Maybe there’s something about their leadership style or the particulars of that role that make high performance challenging. 
  • Does your performance management system account for factors like market trends, customer disruptions, or technology changes that might be outside of an individual’s control? 
  • Have you spent time learning from high performers to know what situations, support, and tools helped set them up for success? 

In the new world of work, inspiring, equipping, and enabling high performance requires orienting manager discussions and conversations around how to help team members achieve their career and performance goals. Sometimes that means pursuing opportunities outside of your organization, developing new skills, or knocking down barriers to high performance. Either way, success is found by believing growth is possible, thinking about your employee needs, and assuming the best intentions and motivations.

About the author:

Kevin Campbell currently serves as a Senior People Scientist for Culture Amp. As a thought leader in the employee feedback and performance management space, he assists customers with coaching, communication, and feedback strategies at the organization, group, and individual level.

Culture Amp is the world’s most powerful employee feedback and analytics platform. With over 1,000 customers and a rapidly growing community of over 40,000 People Geeks globally, Culture Amp is making the world a better place to work.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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