Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

Your Schedule? That’s Where Your Promises Go.

A friend, Jason, told me he waited at a restaurant this morning for over an hour because his friend “promised” to meet him there at 9 AM. The friend never showed, and didn’t email or text to say he wasn’t coming. I’ve heard this before from Jason, and it’s clear to me that his friend does not use a schedule to keep track of his appointments. Maybe Jason’s friend doesn’t consider their breakfast-date an “appointment”. Or maybe he treats all his appointments that way: I assume that I will remember, or even if I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter much.

Here’s an extreme example of that kind of thinking – The New Yorker reported (April 17, 2017, page 23) that Martin Shkreli probably doesn’t pay much attention to a schedule either:

“It was almost 9 P.M. when Shkreli drained his second glass of beer. He suddenly looked alert, remembering that he had received a jury-duty summons. He looked at his phone and said, “S**t, I might have missed it. What day is it?””

Wow. This is not someone you’d want to invite over to dinner. The soufflé would likely have to be reheated and served with a side of bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.

No-shows happen to Jason a lot – probably because Jason doesn’t use a schedule either. His life is unusually simple: a ride to work in the morning, the day at work, then home to dinner, maybe a bike ride, then TV and to bed. He lives pretty much one-day-at-a-time, and if something other than bike-riding and TV is supposed to happen in the evening, he remembers it, because it’s “special”. Weekends can be more complicated – he might meet his father, or go to visit nearby relatives, or make plans with friends. The dates and times for get-togethers with family members are very reliable – everybody communicates by email about the specifics of each event, so there are few surprises. Appointments made with his friends, however, are reliable only half the time.

What is so hard about using a schedule to make note of appointments or other agreements? I’m not sure, because I rely on my schedule to tell me where to be and when – every single appointment goes on my calendar, and once or twice a week I fill in the spaces between them with things from my “Do-Due List“. But that’s because I have reached a “certain age” where I have learned that my memory is not to be trusted. Not everyone has a complex life, and some weeks we may not need the schedule as much as others. But how can we count on keeping our word when we don’t write it down in a place we will check – and update – every day?

The question for Jason now, however, is, How long am I going to maintain a relationship with people who can’t be counted on to show up at the promised time and place? How many times am I willing to be stood up and left waiting before I assign you a reputation as Unreliable? I suspect Jason has more patience than most of us. He certainly has more than I do.

How to Save Time: Make Better Requests to Get Better Promises

Shane, a student in Jeffrey’s management class last semester said he had solved a problem at work: wasted time! He stopped me in the hall at the university yesterday and said, “We reduced the time people spent making unnecessary calls to remind people about what they said they were going to do. Tell your husband thanks for teaching us how to make better requests and get good promises!”

It was funny to me, because Jeffrey and I had just asked a local handyman to repair the downspouts on the side of our house. The guy said he would come over “next week”. By Thursday morning, I was wondering if he was really going to come, and how I could get him to be more specific, so I texted him and reminded him that we were waiting. He didn’t answer, and only arrived on Saturday afternoon. I was annoyed at the lack of response as well as the vagueness of his “promised” time of service.

“Promised” may be a stronger word than he would have used. People don’t always hear that what comes out of their own mouth might be a “promise”. Right now, for example, I have an email in my in-box that was sent to me 2 days ago. It says, “I will get back to you tomorrow.” She hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

Did she make a promise? In my world, yes, she did. In her world, I would guess not. When you say, “I’ll have it for you Tuesday”, do you consider that you’ve made a promise?

What Shane did was take the idea of making good requests and put it into practice with his whole team. His goal was to get more solid agreements, and here is his description of what he did:

  1. First, I proposed the idea of making better requests to all my team members at our Monday meeting. I explained that whenever we ask for something from someone, whether they are on the team or not, we are going to say three things:
    1. Specifics about “What” will be done;
    2. A specific time “When” it will be complete; and
    3. A statement of whatever workplace goal our request supports, i.e., “Why” it matters.
  2. Then I reminded everybody to also specify any information about “Who, Where, and How” that is relevant to their request – or at least discuss those things with the person they are asking to do something. It helps you get the other person’s input to clarify and confirm the importance of the request.
  3. The last thing I told them was that we would keep a list of their requests on a flip-chart in the meeting room. Anyone on the team who requested something from anybody else in the company would write it on the chart, along with the “due date” for completion. And we would review the chart every Monday morning to see how our requests were being fulfilled.

Shane’s approach to getting better performance agreements from people focused only on the request side of the conversation. It was an effective first step. He said the first Monday review of the “Request List” revealed that there had been 35 requests made in the previous week, and over half of them had been completed as expected. “Not bad,” Shane said, “but not great either. Seven people had to follow up with people who hadn’t delivered what they promised. Five people had to reschedule some of their work because they didn’t get what they requested in time to do what they had planned to do.”

“We talked about what was missing in our requests,” Shane said, “and started to understand why we aren’t getting what we ask for 100% of the time. The second week we got much better results. Making clearer requests is a real time-saver – we are getting good promises from people and it has made our work life smoother.”

I never got a “good promise” from that handyman because I didn’t make a good request. I could have explained that I wanted him to come over when Jeffrey would be home to explain the problem. I could have asked for a narrower window of time to come to the house. I could have explained that the house is being sold and the buyer wants to check that all the necessary repairs have been done. Coulda. Didn’t.

Bottom line: making good requests is not just for the workplace. Productive communication works at home too.

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.