3rd April 2023 | Written by

Let’s Talk About Suboptimal Performance

Managing a team can be challenging, especially when there are members who are not performing at their highest level.

Back when I was working at Dell, I was managing a sales team of nineteen people. One member of the team, let’s call him Greg, had a quota of two and a half million dollars in revenue and wasn’t hitting it. He wasn’t hitting his lagging or leading indicators, and I knew he wasn’t performing. Despite this, I didn’t roll out a performance improvement plan proactively to help him be his best and to help the team hit their goals. I was saying yes to his suboptimal performance.

Why? One word: Loyalty.

Greg was my mentor when he first got to Dell. I had incredible loyalty to him, and the rest of the team loved him – as a result, I didn’t want to see that he was failing. I didn’t want to performance manage someone who was so good to me.

So, I avoided the issue, moving Greg to another territory, but he still wasn’t hitting his number. I moved him again – the same result. I was doing everything I could to avoid conflict.

I think I was so scared that if I performance-managed him, I might have to actually fire him.

I couldn’t imagine looking him in the eye, knowing how good he was to me, knowing that he had children that depended on him, and giving him that news.

There was also a more selfish concern: If I fired Greg, I was going to have to explain why I fired my mentor to the rest of my team. I was also going to have to write a job description for his backfill, interview a bunch of people, create an onboarding plan, and hope that in the first ninety days, someone would prove that they’re good for the role. It was a daunting task, and it was the last thing I wanted to be doing. Selfishly, I had a lot of reasons to avoid this conflict.

So, I stayed in denial. Hoping he would pull through. Telling myself a more comfortable story of how he would pull out of his nosedive. 

I never stopped to consider the quantitative cost of this comfort. My denial led to the team only hitting one million in revenue in the territory that should have hit two million. And I STILL avoided the difficult conversation. 

I only took action when my pain was great enough. 

In this case, the pain came in the form of my manager asking about Greg.

He pointed out that because I kept avoiding Uncomfortable Work, I cost the company 1 million dollars. 

So then, in pure irony, my manager gave me an ultimatum – performance manage Greg or be performance managed myself. I finally put Greg on a performance improvement plan and prayed that he would get better.

He didn’t. And I was part of the reason why.

By the time I did the Uncomfortable Work to put him on a plan, Greg had very little time to turn things around. By avoiding action for so long, I had inadvertently made the situation worse. It culminated in me having to fire Greg, which was a more difficult and emotional experience than the performance management would’ve been in the first place.

What can you learn from this story?

The difference between a good leader and a great leader is proactively performance managing their team. A great leader doesn’t wait for the pain to be great enough to take action. 

Here are 3 tips for performance managing your team:

  1. Set clear expectations: Pretty basic right? I can’t tell you how many people let this remain fuzzy. Make sure everyone on the team has a clear job description, desired activities, and KPI’s so that it’s clear when someone isn’t performing.
  2. Monthly Difficult Conversations: Don’t hold back your performance feedback until it’s the annual review or you’ve had enough. Make a point of letting your team know that EVERYONE is going to have a performance conversation once a month. That way they expect it and it’s easier for you to initiate those conversations.
  3. Do Uncomfortable Work: Don’t avoid addressing the suboptimal performance like I did with Greg. In those monthly difficult conversations, don’t hold back. Don’t be mean either. Be sincere in your observations for opportunities to improve and then provide the support and resources to help your team member become successful. This serves your people way better than I served Greg.

Suboptimal performance is a difficult situation to manage, but avoiding action only makes the situation worse. As a leader today, as strange as this may seem, I see proactively performance managing my team as a way to love them. Everyone that works with me wants to actualize their potential both professionally and personally. Selfishly avoiding conflict only robs them of what they need to become the best they can be.  It’s become such a game changer at Addictive Leadership, we now have team members proactively ASKING to be performance managed!

If you aren’t quite sure how to empower your team to lean into these difficult conversations please send us a note and we can send you some tools that have helped us. It’s time for leaders to step into some Uncomfortable Work.