Long reads

Must do better

29 Mar 2017 By Jo Faragher

Whether it’s a momentary mishap or an ongoing issue, why do some staff fail to perform? And what can an employer do about it?

New jobs and first dates have a lot in common, says Ray Pendleton, managing director of organisation development consultancy Thirsty Horses: “You accept the job, you’re on your best behaviour, you go through a honeymoon period when everything’s great.” But for every blissful union, there’s a bitter and acrimonious parting. What turns a dream partner into a bitter, tear-stained memory?

Nobody goes out looking for a ruinous relationship, of course. And we also don’t hire in the expectation of underperformance – even a recruiter who is less than 100 per cent convinced they have the most dynamic individual possible will believe they have someone capable of delivering the basics.

But once the bedding in is over, too many employees fall short of our expectations – whether they’re the sort of outright bungler who ruins the biggest night in your organisational calendar, or they just lack the interpersonal skills for the job.

When staff underperform, the cause is often uncomfortably close to home. Top of the 12 questions asked by Gallup when it comes to gauging someone’s engagement at work is: ‘Do you know what is expected of you at work?’ When employees have clarity around what’s expected of them, and they feel they’re getting what they signed up for during the attraction and hiring process, they are more likely to keep up their side of the deal. “Keeping someone performing and enthusiastic – especially at the start – is about making good on the promises you made when you recruited them,” says Steve Rockey, people director at Home Grown Hotels and Lime Wood Group, a hospitality chain.

“You get the highest turnover when people think they’re walking into A and you give them D. You’ve probably hired the right person – but you’ve not delivered for them.”

And while competency-based recruitment is a reliable way to know if someone can deal with the technical aspects of a role, hiring more on cultural fit or whether someone subscribes to your values as an employer can affect whether they’ll continue to perform, or whether they’ll be able to deal with changes. “Does the person understand who we are and our culture? Are we hiring based on whether they’re fit for the place, rather than just fit for the job? If we get this right, performance management becomes a much easier concept,” says Hani Nabeel, talent and assessment partner at Alderbrooke, an executive search company.

“It helps when we’re hiring people if we look beyond whether someone has the technical skills to whether they have a flexible attitude and whether they’re open to learning and are optimistic about what they can achieve,” adds Stuart Duff of assessment and development consultancy Pearn Kandola.

Once someone has settled into a role, how they are managed is crucial to their long-term performance. A recent poll by Gallup found that employees whose managers excelled at performance management were more engaged than those whose managers struggled with these tasks. “Great managers don’t just tell employees what’s expected of them and leave it at that; instead, they frequently talk with them about their responsibilities and progress. They don’t save those critical conversations for once-a-year performance reviews,” says Gallup’s report.

Eugene Burke, an adviser at Alderbrooke, agrees that traditional performance management approaches can be too “transactional”, with workers scored on crude metrics that don’t reflect their multifaceted roles. “We need managers who can frame objectives that are engaging for the employee. You rely on the manager to make the performance conversation an effective one,” he says.

Jonny Gifford, organisational behaviour adviser at the CIPD, says: “We have a long tradition of using SMART [specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based] objectives, but for certain types of tasks these will not work at all. With complex work where there are lots of stages to go through or lots of information to be acquired to make a decision, non-specific objectives tend to work best.”

He adds that whatever feedback you’re offering an employee, it needs to be perceived as fair. “If someone feels that criticism or feedback has been fair, they’re more likely to go on and improve. As employers, we don’t do enough to check how feedback has landed. Even asking the day after a meeting whether they thought the chat was useful can help. Otherwise, the cycle of performance can unravel.”

While there will be certain sectors where an audit trail of managing performance may be useful – such as in the NHS or financial services – the key is to focus on shifting behaviour, rather than carrying out the process for the process’s sake.

The trend towards more regular performance conversations and away from formal, annual appraisals, while welcome, is likely to have some line managers quaking in their boots. “We’re not good at addressing negatives,” says Duff. “There are lots of organisations that ‘um and ah’ and try to find a way of working with someone who is underperforming. They try them with a different team, or tweak their role. But they tend to run into problems; taking a short-term view, and not wanting to upset someone, creates a long-term problem and shows others that ‘we don’t deal with underperformance’ – that employees can keep underperforming and get away with it.”

Part of the issue, he argues, is that we can be too quick to label people. Talent matrices and other tools encourage companies to place people in quadrants where they’re either high-performing or in need of improvement, which can end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Neil Morrison, director of strategy, culture and innovation at Penguin Random House, believes employers often place excessively high expectations on their people – they should consistently be giving 110 per cent and, when productivity slips, bosses refuse to see how expecting too much might have contributed. “You don’t buy an ice cream and expect to get two. If you order two scoops and get one, then that’s a problem. If you get three, that’s a bonus. But employers seem to expect discretionary effort without any extra reward,” he says.

“The psychological contract we have with employees says that we will step up for them if they step up for us when needed. Terms such as ‘engagement’ and ‘discretionary effort’ are part of the problem. It’s just a subversive way to get people to do more things rather than giving them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Setting targets too high or introducing the wrong kind of goals can also have an unintended negative impact on someone’s mental and emotional health. Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, says organisations must move away from motivating employees based on fear to encouraging collaboration and trust.

“Being challenged can have its benefits for some people, but too much of the stress hormone cortisol can affect our cognitive functions as well as impair our resilience,” she says. “Emotions such as fear, anger and shame can all increase cortisol production. But the bonding hormone oxytocin is associated with trust, joy and excitement – all of which can increase innovation and creativity. Oxytocin is released during positive team engagement and interaction.”

Penguin Random House has responded to this by investing in several wellbeing initiatives such as mindfulness and meditation. “In our industry, the work can be very individual, emotional and stressful. At its simplest, people get tired so as an employer you need to step back and see if there are any steps you can take to help them cope. You could save more time and money in the long term,” says Morrison.

There will, of course, be times when someone slips into underperformance because of external factors. A bereavement or a change in family circumstances, for example, could affect someone’s ability to keep up with their targets. Again, the best approach is to have an open and honest conversation. “If you work in a trusting culture, people should be honest with you about what’s happening. In some situations, the best thing might be to give them time off or change something about their work environment,” says Rockey.

Occasionally, a drop in productivity may be down to something less personal, such as a change in the way the business is structured or the end of a client relationship. The key is to understand what is going on and sometimes accept there may be nothing you can do about it, Rockey says: “Are they new and in need of support to develop aspects of the role? Are they facing too much pressure? Or, if they’ve been there longer, have they come to the end of their enthusiasm for the business and, if so, is there something you can do to reignite that or is it time for them to move on to something else?”

When employees seem to have lost their way, reminding them where their role fits in with the wider goals of the business can help – whether that’s to improve customer service scores, outperform a competitor or provide value for money for a client. One of the best ways is to “bring the customer to life”, suggests Niall Cluley, director of consulting at culture and performance specialists Dragonfish. This could be through sharing customer engagement scores or developing a new set of customer-focused values and behaviours. “This makes people’s jobs real. You let them know the behaviours that are expected of them and how these impact on the customer and the business,” he says.

When Cluley worked as global HR director at Fitness First, he led a project that identified six types of gym member: three who needed more support, and three who needed more inspiration. During shifts and busy periods, these profiles helped staff tailor their service to clients, focusing on those who needed the greatest support while still giving the ‘inspiration’ members the acknowledgement and variety they craved.

Every so often, of course, employees don’t fit neatly into boxes where they’re not performing because the company isn’t right for them, they hate their boss or they didn’t attend the right training course. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of someone not being good enough at their job – and it’s here where even the best performance management will fall short.

“It would be convenient if everyone who fitted into this category simply self-selected and said ‘I’m better off in another role or organisation’, but that doesn’t always happen,” says Morrison. “You do find, though, that if they end up in a formal performance management process they will either self-select out of the organisation during this process or improve. It’s rarely a forced parting.”

Perhaps part of the answer is to reframe the question, by looking beyond individual performance. Cluley believes that, if organisations want to get the best out of their people, there should be more focus on how teams are doing. “We create values that emphasise teamwork and collaboration, so why is performance management often still so oriented on the individual?” he says.

“Work itself has become much more fluid – take the ‘agile’ approach to managing projects as an example – and this is challenging traditional HR processes.

“We end up losing people who might be great team contributors, but who aren’t recognised as such in the current process.”

Not dealing with the causes and symptoms of underperformance can be a huge drain on resources. But as the world of work changes and we learn more about how the brain responds to both feedback and stress, perhaps it’s time to challenge the how and why of performance – before the organisational divorce bill really starts to bite on the bottom line.

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