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Managing underperformance: the fear factor

Very few people actively seek confrontation. And this includes those charged with managing employees. But has your dislike of confrontation morphed into fear of managing underperformance?

For many managers, confronting employees about performance or conduct concerns can be challenging. A recent global study of nearly 8000 managers found that 44% of managers are fearful and anxious about giving negative feedback, and one fifth avoids the practice altogether.

In today’s litigious workplace environment, a manager’s job is unpredictable. The COVID-19 factor has added another layer of change, ambiguity and uncertainty to a manager’s workload. This uncertainty often extends to a manager’s willingness to proactively address employee underperformance. Given how readily ex-employees claim unfair dismissal or make general protections applications through the Fair Work Commission, it’s not unusual for employers to keep problem workers on board simply to avoid what they perceive as the often-exorbitant dollar and time costs of defending unfair dismissal claims.

I often get called to help employers work through concerns with underperforming employees. What I typically find is that managers are hesitant to hold difficult conversations with their people simply because they don’t know how to do it. When managers don’t know what to do, they often feel the safest thing to do is do nothing. As a result of inaction, what should have been a relatively simple underperformance matter to address often escalates. Your underperformer recognises he or she can do pretty much anything they like and you simply accept it. In essence, you fear them.

But here’s something you instinctively know: few things demotivate a business faster than tolerating and retaining low performers. Not only because your underperformer isn’t doing their job, but because someone else has to take up the slack. Keep that up for too long and your good people will leave.

So what can you do? Man up (or woman up), for a start. Holding an employee accountable for their work isn’t mean or unfair; it’s your job.

Secondly, recognise that each day you fail to address the issue, you are burning money. And that hurts when it’s yours.

Thirdly, “mutual obligation” logic: just because an employee is in a job doesn’t mean they have the ongoing right to that job. In return for their wage, they have obligations to perform at a certain level and maintain an acceptable level of workplace conduct. And who determines what “certain” and “acceptable” level is? You: the employer.

If it’s all too hard, call in a specialist to help. Good HR Consultants will offer you the option of being as actively involved in the process as you’re comfortable with or they can show you how to manage employee underperformance yourself. The second option is a great investment; from both business perspective and for your own professional development.

Nothing will be the magic cure to suddenly make a manager enjoy confrontation. And no one in sound mind should enjoy it. But you can commit to no longer being in fear of managing underperformance. A great place to start is with a change in your own approach and mindset: in managing underperformance, you’re not being harsh or unfair to your employees by confronting them; you’re doing them a disservice by refusing to.

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Note: Bare Bones Consulting provides HR services for employers. Employees seeking advice on workplace concerns should contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.