Tackling underperformance during lockdown

Ian MacRae explains how HR can work with employees to ensure any unwelcome behaviour is acknowledged and managed

Realignment conversations are a diplomatic way of describing the difficult conversations that need to happen when someone has not been performing well over a sustained period of time. There may be some trepidation among managers and HR in approaching these potentially tough interactions, but putting them off does no one any favours. During challenging and uncertain times, most people appreciate clarity and honesty more than prevarication.

When realignment conversations are done well, managers will find it useful to generate discussion around a proactive approach to behaviour change. They should:

Recognise problems – first, the person may not recognise they are underperforming, or the impact of their underperformance. This conversation should involve a very clear discussion of what the required performance level looks like and how it is evaluated.

Explore causes – both the manager and the employee discuss and describe the problems and potential causes of the problems. Give the employee plenty of opportunity to describe the problem from their own perspective because this can lead to identifying potential solutions.

Discuss alternatives – here there can be new strategies to change behaviour and improve performance. Clear descriptions of the required performance level and how it will be evaluated is essential.

Consolidate improvements – new approaches are continued and monitored to ensure short-term improvements are translated and applied over the longer term.

When there are problems with underperformance, that person may not realise the problem exists, and they may not have insight into the causes. However, most employees will have relatively good insight and self-awareness so be sure to give them an opportunity to discuss their perspective, and focus the conversations around making required improvements.

Being caring in the time of Covid

There have been a range of approaches to performance conversations with employees during the crisis, and some companies have used the lockdown to revisit and improve their performance management processes. Conversely, some companies have taken more callous approaches, such as using Zoom as a tool for mass layoffs. 

The psychology of behaviour change

While it is certainly commendable to be compassionate and consider employee wellbeing, part of this involves providing performance feedback when it is most useful.

When the UK went into lockdown, those who were still working had to suddenly change their schedules, routines and work structures almost overnight. This required substantial behavioural change suddenly, and came as quite a shock to many. But with time, any behavioural change starts to become ingrained and automatic.

Temporary behaviour change starts to form regular patterns and becomes habit after about three weeks. Then, after two to three months these habits start to become entrenched patterns that are even more resistant to change. Every week these habits persist, they get much more difficult to change. We’re now in the eleventh week of lockdown. Any good or bad habits that have been forming over the last 10 weeks are becoming entrenched. That means ongoing underperformance issues will be much more difficult to change in another four weeks.

So correct bad behaviours now. And double down on what’s working. Many people will have developed effective strategies and behaviours while working from home. Reflect on good habits and good practice, and be sure to embed those in long-term planning.

Many managers and HR professionals are very cognisant that the lockdown has had a wide range of impacts on employees; the emotional, cognitive and physical effects are profound and potentially long lasting. However, it is not possible to put people’s emotions and behaviour in stasis. Temporary behaviour change will very quickly become permanent so performance issues must be addressed. In times of prolonged uncertainty, withholding necessary information from people is rarely an act of kindness. Candour, clarity and honesty are far more useful. Have the conversation when behaviour is still relatively flexible and changeable. Once behaviours become entrenched they become far more difficult to change.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of Myths of Social Media