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COMMENTS | Blog Digest April 14, 2006

Managerial Underperformance

Author: David Maister []

Since the 1980s, in the course of both my consulting and seminar work, it has been my habit to ask people to evaluate their leader, manager, supervisor — whatever you want to call it.

One of the things that consistently surprises me is that one question in particular ALWAYS receives low scores — how promptly the manager deals with underperformers.

Managers are always rated poorly on this. According to my experience, different managers have different strengths, but everyone, it seems, has the same weakness.

In a recent article (A Great Coach in Action) I discussed the natural reluctance that all of us have to engage in uncomfortable conversations until we absolutely have to.

That article is also episode 3 in my new 15-part podcast series on Managing Professionals which will be launched on my website on April 14, 2006.

In both our personal and professional lives, most of us dont like to complain, and we have never been taught the subtle art of offering a gentle critique to another person without eliciting defensiveness and hostile reactions. As a result, we dont say anything until the minor irritation has turned into an unavoidable problem.

Whats significant, I think, about the fact that most managers are rated poorly in this area is that most people are, implicitly or explicitly, saying that they WISHED their managers were more prompt in tackling this issue. People want standards of the group to be enforced. It is very dispiriting to be trying really hard yourself, only to see that management is letting other people slacken and slide.

No-one wants to work in a place ruled by terror. But no-one wants to be part of a sloppy, ill-disciplined group either. People, Ive been told over and over again. Want clear guidelines and rules of behavior, and then want everyone to be held to those standards.

We hear a lot about ugly managers who are too demanding, but my experience is that the opposite problem — managers who are too easy going to tackle performance problems — may in fact be a more common and more resented situation.

Many managers think they are doing their job when they respond to and deal with egregious examples of bad behavior or underperformance. (We cut peoples pay or fire them if they dont ultimately live up to standards.)

The truth, however, is that if you have waited until someone has failed (or the problem has become intolerable) before you intervene, you have lost most of your options. The essence of management is not do you respond to problems?- but rather — do you deal with emerging issues before they become problems?

Failing to help someone in your group who could improve, but who is not yet a major problem, is, of course, a tragedy all around. The individual fails to improve, the groups performance slips, morale plummets — because the standards are clearly seen to be set lower — and you have lost the (possibly one-time) opportunity to establish a counseling relationship when the issue is only a minor one.

You are most likely to be able to offer a critique — and have it accepted — if you are doing it with someone who trusts you because you already have formed a relationship. So, the most effective managing takes place if there is a history of talking together before there are performance problems. As the saying goes, the best time to build a relationship is before you need it.

The best time to offer performance guidance, counseling and concern is when someone is already performing well, and youre only trying to help them get to greatness. Do THAT frequently, and it will be easier to spot and discuss emerging problems with greater ease and comfort. Youll have fewer performance problems all round.

The test of real managerial skill is the courage, the tact and the art of intervening when there is only the first sign of a performance problem, not when it is obvious to everyone.

Do it well, and your people will thank you for it by raising their own performance — and they will rate you more highly as a manager!

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