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Managing Negative Employees and Poor Performance

Published November 2017

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Managing difficult employees is a big challenge for leaders. Poor performance can really impact your business, not just in terms of productivity but also in terms of team morale. If one person is not pulling their weight it increases the pressure on the rest of the team. Worst still, an individual with a negative ‘can’t do’ attitude can influence other employees creating a pessimistic atmosphere within a whole team or department. 


The ability to recognise and deal with poor employee performance effectively and appropriately is therefore a very desirable management skill. So what should managers do?

Find out the Root Cause: Deterioration in performance can occur at any time and for any of a number of different reasons. Before you can deal with the situation, you need to understand why that individual is not performing as you expect them to.  In some cases, the issue may not be the employee themselves. For example, have you introduced a new procedure or system that has caused the employee to be less productive? Or is there something else holding them back for example a lack of resources, tools, skills or training? These types of issues are easy to fix whilst others may be more difficult.

Deal with Issues Promptly: The key to managing poor performance is to tackle issues quickly before they escalate and get out of control. The longer you leave something, the worse it gets, and the harder it’ll be to find a satisfactory resolution for both parties. Poor performance that is not addressed can be seen by the employee as being condoned by the manager. This makes it harder to manage the behaviour at a later date, as negative feedback is likely to come as a surprise. The sooner poor performance is recognised and addressed, the sooner the situation will improve for everyone involved.

Start with an Informal Conversation: Discussions regarding competency should always be carried out in private, but that doesn’t mean you need to have a formal sit down meeting initially. Taking an employee into your office and closing the door can create a tense atmosphere. Instead, start with informal discussions focused on identifying issues and finding solutions to support and encourage good performance. Grab a coffee together or look to catch up in an informal meeting room or discussion area. 

Refer to Specific Issues: When discussing poor performance, use evidence and facts to state your case and focus on behaviour. If you bring gossip or people’s opinions into the conversation you might find yourself disagreeing over details, which can confuse the message. Also, be careful not to sugarcoat the message with a positive statement at the end of the meeting. Because these conversations can be difficult, managers often try to soften the blow by saying something like "....but overall, you've really been doing a great job." The problem with this is that your employee may leave the meeting thinking they are doing ok; so don’t really need to change. So take care not to undermine your position with unwarranted praise.

Set Goals and Measure Achievement: It is also helpful to set measurable and achievable goals as part of any performance review meeting. You should review this with the employee at regular intervals, giving them the opportunity to flag any problems or concerns and for you to implement any necessary remedial action or changes to the improvement plan. There is nothing more frustrating for a manager, than to think you have resolved the issue only to find that performance dips again a few weeks or months later. So ensure you keep up with meetings until you are confident you have addressed all of your concerns. 


Whilst managing poor performance can be a challenge for managers it is also an opportunity to support that member of staff to develop new skills and grow as an employee. It is hugely rewarding when you get it right and see real improvements within your team. The knowledge and strategies needed to be successful at performance management can be attained via formal training and arranging a training day for managers is a good way to ensure your business leaders are equipped to deal with difficult situations. If we can help with a performance issue within your business or provide activities for an upcoming training day, please let us know.



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