Managing Performance: Up or Out

Avoidance is not a strategy

Russell was a very, very nice guy. Everyone agreed about that. Of course, “very nice guy” was code for “conflict averse.”

Russell was a great mediator and facilitator, but he wasn’t always decisive, especially when it came to managing his people.

As a vice president at a global entertainment company, his direct reports were mostly high-functioning junior executives who did a respectable job running their own teams. Except for Matt.

“His team is upset with him,” said Russell. “My team is upset with him. Heck, I’m upset with him. Even Glenn’s upset with him,” he said, referring to the division president. “Matt’s completely out of alignment with everyone else and thinks we are the problem. Maybe he’s the one who should get coaching!”

I asked, “How long have you known he’s a problem?”

Russell looked down at his lap. “Years.”

“Wow,” I said, “I’m surprised there hasn’t been a revolt against you for letting it go on so long.”

“Well,” he said with a smile, “I was given a coach!”

Begin now. It’s never too late.

I asked what he’d been saying to Matt all these years.

“I wasn’t very direct,” Russell admitted. “I can’t lay it all on him if he didn’t receive the message.

He quickly continued. “But I got a lot better this past year. I knew I was avoiding the problem, so I started role-playing with my husband. And he kicked my ass. I’ve gotten more frank since then. Of course, my version of ‘frank’ may not be enough.”

“So you’ve been more frank this year and Matt still hasn’t made any changes?” I asked.

“Not enough,” he replied with a sigh. “Everyone’s still furious with him. I don’t think he’s ever going to get to where I need him to be.”

“Russell?” I cocked my head and asked, “Why is Matt still working here?”

Suddenly, Russell and I were having a frank conversation about the pros and cons of keeping Matt in his role. When the conversation was over, the negatives far outweighed the positives, both in number and in gravity.

Suddenly, Russell decided that, yes, he was going to let Matt go.

“Wait a second,” I said. “There’s an important question you have to ask yourself in these situations. You have to ask: if you called Matt in right now and told him you are going to let him go, would he be surprised?”

“Probably,” he said.

“Then you haven’t done your job yet, Russell. Termination should never come as a surprise. Ever. Not for your most junior employee, and certainly not for someone at Matt’s level.”

“Of course, of course. You’re absolutely right. So help me do this the right way.”

I told him there were five actions he needed to take. The first was strategic; the other four, tactical. We dove in.

1   Follow protocol

“First, you need to follow your company’s rules.”

“Oh, well, Susan’s really good at this stuff,” he said, referring to his HR business partner.

“I’m glad,” I said. Then I continued, “I don’t know her well enough to predict how she’ll respond to the idea of letting Matt go.”

“Meaning?”

“I’ve worked with a hundred different HR folks over the years, Russell. They all have their own style when it comes to managing poor performers. Some love swooping in and getting rid of the chaff. Others think it’s their job to slow things down and make sure the process is thoughtful. Neither is right or wrong. It’s just style. So if Susan’s style doesn’t match yours—if she’s too fast for you or too slow—you can ask her to flex. She’s your partner.”

“OK. Point taken. So I need to partner with HR. Will do.” He finished making a note, then looked up. “What about me? What do I need to be doing?”

“Ah! OK! Now we get tactical,” I said. “There are four things you should be doing. They’re all related to how you communicate with Matt. Ready?”

“Shoot!”

“One: set measurable goals. Two: be direct. Three: be repetitive. And four: keep track.” (Long time readers will recognize the “Sorting & Labeling” style of communicating. The “Sorting & Labeling” technique continues to be the one communication tool my clients tell me makes the biggest difference in their style.)

2   Set measurable goals

“You said Matt’s team is upset with him. Tell me about that.”

Russell related how Matt micromanaged some projects but seemed completely absent from others. And how Matt sometimes gave contradictory direction to his team.

Russell continued, “All I know is that I have an endless parade of his team members showing up complaining about him.”

“So I hear that you have three issues, Russell: his management style, his leadership style and complaints from his team. Any or all of those can become a topic for your conversations with Matt. But you need to be able to tell him what ‘success’ will look like.”

“That’s the measurable part, right?”

“Right,” I said. “You know, when I was acting on television, certain directors didn’t have a clue how to talk to actors. After a take, they’d say, ‘Act better!’ As if that would help us! This is the same situation. You can’t just say to Matt, ‘Manage better!’ Or ‘Lead better!’ You need to tell him how you’re going to measure success.”

“You can help me with that, right?”

“Sure. So can Susan. But you can do this, Russell. Ask yourself, ‘If he did it well, what would it look like on video?’ ‘What would it sound like on the radio?’ Create an absolutely clear line of demarcation. Like a goal line. You should be able to tell at any given moment which side of the line he’s on.”

“OK,” he said, writing it down. “Measurable goals. What’s next?”

3   Be direct

“When you see which side of the line he’s on, tell him. He should know whether he’s succeeding or not.”

Russell looked up from his pad. “That way, if we end up talking about termination there’s no surprise, right?”

“Right.”

He groaned. “This is going to be such a stretch for me!” Then, “But can I be direct about things like his attitude?”

I recognized the concern. “’Attitude’ is just a pattern of behaviors. Instead of trying to talk about his attitude, talk about the patterns you see. Describe each stage. Be concrete.”

He said, “See if this is what you mean. Matt has a pattern of agreeing with me about something during our one-on-one meetings, then asking his team to do something completely different. When I bring it up to him, he says, ‘Oh, sorry! I didn’t understand.’ As if!”

“That’s perfect, Russell. That’s not about attitude. It’s about a pattern. Describe each stage of the pattern without apology or blame. Then tell him you want it to stop.”

“Do I need to describe what I want instead?”

“That’d be great,” I said. “The goal line gets clearer if you can describe what both sides of the line look like.”

He drew a long, slow breath as he imagined himself speaking that directly.

“Oh, this is going to get so heated!” he said with some dread.

“It doesn’t have to,” I replied. “Talk about the pattern like you would talk about the soup in aisle three at the market. It’s just something you know is there. It’s a fact. It exists. And, as his boss, you want the pattern to stop.”

4 & 5   Be Repetitive & Keep Track

He considered that with seriousness, then said, “I can do that.” Then, squinting as if he’d tasted something sour, “Number four was to be repetitive? I have to be this direct all the time?”

“It’s not a big sit-down conversation, Russell. Maybe it’s a sentence or two as you walk out of a meeting. If you talk about the goal line all the time, the process gets easier for everyone.”

He rolled his eyes at that. Then, counting ‘five’ on his fingers, he said, “And keep track. Does that mean I have to buy a diary?”

“Some people do,” I said in earnest. “Other people send confirmation emails. ‘Hey, Matt, just want to recap our agreement…’ That sort of thing. You can do it any way you want. The important thing is to keep a record of your conversations: what you said, what he said.”

“This is going to be a pain in the ass,” he moaned.

“Boo-hoo.”

He laughed at my absolute lack of sympathy. “I know! This is what I get for avoiding it so long!”

I raised my palm like a traffic cop. “Hey, deciding to let someone go is hard. You’re making a decision that is going to create change in that person’s life. I understand why it’s hard to do.”

“Hard is one thing,” he said, “but avoidance—which is my story!—is another. And I’ve paid a price for it. There are so many more problems just because he’s around.”

“And your reputation has taken a hit,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said regretfully. “I think I knew a long time ago what I had to do, I just thought we’d all learn to live with it.” Then he gave a little shiver. “Ew, I just made it sound like working with Matt is some sort of condition you have to live with!”

“But in some ways it is,” I said, not joking at all. “Look at all the disruption he’s caused. That’s like a disease, Russell. It’s serious.”

He sobered. I went on.

“In all my years of talking about this with people, I have never once heard any one say, ‘Oh, gosh, I should have waited six months longer before letting him go!’”

“They all wish they’d done it six months earlier, right?”

“Of course.”

“And you think I will, too?”

“In your case, Russell, I think you may wish you’d done it years earlier.” He laughed.

Russell created a cheat sheet for himself that had five points on it. It looked like this:

  • Follow the rules! (Partner with HR)
  • Set measurable goals (Think video replay)
  • Be direct (It’s soup in aisle three)
  • Be repetitive (Call the standings at the goal)
  • Keep track! (Notes, not a transcript.)

Susan was a great partner with Russell, and, in less than six months, Matt was gone. Almost immediately, the climate on Russell’s team became brighter. Russell’s decision to let Matt go, and his ability to carry it out efficiently, moved Russell’s brand much closer to The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

Many companies are entering their performance review cycles. Documenting on-going problems in an annual review is one of the important responsibilities you have as a manager. For ideas on conducting more effective performance reviews, click here.

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