The moment you are in a leadership position, even if you don’t have any explicit authority, you are responsible for setting performance goals and standards for your group, be that a team of 3 or a department of 100. Even without explicit authority, a power dynamic is established that affects how you will interact with your team and how your team will interact with you.
If you hope to be successful, then you need to communicate what the goals are, how they will be measured, what the standard expectations for team contributions are, how those will be measured, and how people on the team are expected to interact with each other. Meanwhile, make it clear that you’re holding yourself to those same goals and standards. This can generally by done by establishing good OKRs (Objective and Key Results) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and by helping your team write good OKRs and KPIs. (For those interested, I’ll create a separate post on developing good OKRs and KPIs later.)
Most of the time, this process works. People, generally, want to work. They want to be productive, and they want to contribute. So long as they feel valued and understand the tasks at hand, they’ll generally do what they can in order to accomplish the established goals within the time allotted.
Doing so gives them a sense of mastery and professional development. These are powerful intrinsic motivators, and in a healthy work environment, that’s often enough to get the performance you need as a manager.
But what if you don’t have a healthy work environment? What if you have a team member who is not only struggling with their goals but is also negatively affecting the team?
For the sake of this post, we’ll assume that the OKRs and KPIs are clear. We’ll also assume that the team is, generally, doing what they are supposed to do. As a manager and leader, what do you do when one of your team members isn’t performing and you have to discipline them? How do you handle that?
Anyone that has worked before is generally aware of the standard protocol of verbal warning, written warning, and dismissal that most businesses follow. That sounds logical, but these stages are generally ill-defined. In fact, managers generally get very little guidance on how to mentor and develop an employee prior to reaching any of those steps, often leading to organizational disaster.
Even if we assume the definitions are solid and well-understood, many managers have difficulty addressing personnel issues. Some managers have a knack for handling these situations, but — in my experience — most managers struggle. Some managers don’t want to be seen as “the bad guy.” Some simply want everyone to get along and avoid any and all conflict at any cost, generally until the issues are too big to ignore. Some create structured guidelines and play everything “by the book,” regardless of what the actual situation demands. Worst of all, some managers relish any opportunity to wield their imagined authority, completely missing the opportunity to course correct and completely destroying the sense of scale for any particular misstep.
I’m going to mention a lot about things that might be considered downward communication. I am making a few assumptions here, for the sake of brevity. (Think of how long this post would be without those assumptions!) Managers and leaders must communicate up the chain. When applying discipline, that upward communication must happen first. You may need corporate approval. You may be asked to keep a record of your actions. You may be asked to skip a step. You may wish to discuss or argue those decisions. No matter what, you must be transparent in your leadership. That includes transparency in your upward communication.
1-on-1s and Minor Course Corrections
A good organization will cultivate a culture of regular 1-on-1 meetings, in order to ensure communication between managers and team members. If the team trusts each other, then these meetings can be very productive and can eliminate a lot of the stress that goes into mentoring, course-correction, and quarterly reviews. Assuming that good relationships have been established and assuming that the manager is aware of the team’s progress against the organization’s goals, it should be easy for most issues to be resolved in a simple conversation.
These conversations should play out with a specific framework:
- Ask how things are going.
- Be genuinely interested. People can sense when you aren’t actually interested.
- Mention what you’ve heard or observed.
- Don’t accuse the team member of anything. Simply mention what you’ve noticed or, if someone came to you, what you heard. In the latter case, you don’t need to share sources. That will only create friction.
- Ask for clarification.
- After all, you may not have the full picture. Admit that you need their help to get that understanding, but don’t undercut your own judgment or expectations in the process.
- Restate the goals.
- This includes bringing up deadlines and any concerns you might have. Make sure your standards are clear. You are setting expectations.
- Ask if you can help.
- Once again, be genuinely interested in what you might be able to do to help. What does your team member need in order to succeed? Assuming the request is reasonable, find out and do what you can to help. Make sure you and your team understand the limits of what you can do.
Most of the time, I’ve found that having calm, non-accusatory conversations along that framework solve most problems. I’m able to give my team member a list of clear action items, and — most of the time — I also leave with a set of action items of my own, at the request of my team member. As a result, these conversations feel collaborative, morale remains up, and performance remains high.
Sometimes, though, things don’t work out that way. If I’ve had to present a verbal warning, it’s generally come after addressing the same issue twice before within the context of a single business quarter. At that stage, it’s important to be both very direct and very clear. As a manager, you must be able to list:
- What the goals and expectations are
- How those targets have been missed
- Clear targets for improvement
- A deadline for improvement
Again, you must ask if there’s anything you, as a manager and leader, can do to help. At this stage, it’s essential to offer that opportunity to your team member. This communicates that they’re still in control of their destiny, that they can continue to rely on you as a source of help and encouragement, and that you are still invested in their success.
If you have been consistent in your communication and if your objectives have remained clear, then this is generally enough of a wake-up call for your employees. Professional relationships can be repaired fairly quickly, and work tends to get back on track. More importantly, your team will see an improvement, which can lead to boosts in both morale and productivity.
Written Warnings and PIPs
But what if things still don’t work out?
It’s important to understand how one struggling or belligerent team member can affect the overall productivity of a team. When I was in the Navy, we would run. When we ran as a group, the slowest people were often put at the front. They set the pace for the rest of us. It was our responsibility to encourage them to push themselves, but we could still move no faster than the slowest among us. A similar thing happens with any group project. When you encounter this — and you, as a manager, will encounter this — it is important that you find a way to resolve it quickly, lest you put your project at risk.
If your team member is simply struggling with the tasks at hand, maybe you, as a manager, can change their tasks. Maybe it’s been difficult for them to admit their inability to do the work. Maybe you expected too much too quickly from them. Either way, at this point, it’s necessary to help them chart a path to success.
If your team member is refusing to act as a member of the team, creating obstacles along the way, then you must work with them to change their behavior.
As a sidebar, if your team member has been sexist, racist, ageist, a bully, or has acted in an otherwise unsavory and unprofessional manner, you can and should dismiss them as a result of that action. Most businesses I’ve worked for have established behavioral guidelines that list each of the aforementioned actions as grounds for dismissal. Personally, I agree with those standards. People who claim a right to free expression on those grounds tend to forget that they live in a world of consequences and that their words and actions affect others. From a purely neutral business standpoint, those actions affect the productivity, retention, and bottom line of the organization. From a personal standpoint, those behaviors are signs of a stunted, withered personality and outweigh the benefit of any so-called technical or creative expertise that person might have.
What do you do, then, if you get to the stage of a written warning? As a rule, you should develop a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) for your team member and present that in conjunction with the warning itself.
The warning must be explicit. In other words, you need to know exactly what has and hasn’t been done — acts of commission and omission, if you will — and how those results have affected the team and the project. You shouldn’t have to take notes in order to create this list. A manager needs to have a strong situational awareness, supported by what they see and by what’s reported to them, both by other team members and other managers. This awareness should compliment the data obtained from burndowns, dashboards, and any other quantifiable method used to determine the overall health and status of the project.
You must present this warning and go over the points you’ve outlined. Expect to hear some complaints. Expect to hear some protests. You may even modify one or two of the points, which you should do in real time with the employee present. However, neither you nor the employee have reached this stage spontaneously. You must stand your ground.
This is a difficult step. People want to be liked. They want to cooperate. They don’t want to seem unkind or unjust.
You must get over that impulse. This isn’t saying that you must become cruel. To the contrary, in fact. You must become fair.
Once you’ve gone over the warning, you must both sign the warning and submit the paperwork according to your company’s internal process. This act contains a degree of symbolism. It forces people to confront the situation and their own behavior leading to this moment. This can be a very powerful turning point for them.
Adhering to the PIP
A PIP should include a measured plan for growth and how you expect that growth will be achieved. Generally, this growth should be measured over the course of a month. In rare instances, such as the lack of a skill required for a job, you can give your teammate up to three months — a business quarter — to reach the desired goal.
You should be able to list what you expect on a daily basis for the first two weeks, transitioning to bi-weekly or weekly goals after that. You will have more frequent meetings with this team member along the way. You should both request and expect daily communication of accomplishments from this team member, so that you can gauge performance against the goals set in the PIP. You should be able to see clear progress with increased independence over time.
At this stage, HR should be looped in. They will generally want a weekly meeting with you to determine the success of the PIP. They may, in fact, be eager to dismiss the employee. Most PIPs end in failure, after all, and some HR representatives simply want to ease the process along. Resist that call and report honestly on the progress of your team member. Give them the time that you’ve established in your PIP.
If they’ve successfully reached the end of the PIP, then you can meet to sign off on the successful completion of those goals. This should be a cause for congratulations, as most people under a PIP, as I mentioned, don’t reach this stage.
The Aftermath of a PIP
Many companies only allow one PIP in an employee’s career. Ensure your team member knows that they have used their one chance at extreme rehabilitation, but also let them know that any future success is fully their own. In other words, their future successes should not be minimized in the wake of this administrative hiccup. They should still be able to have a bright career ahead, assuming they remain back on track.
If they don’t achieve the goals in the PIP at any stage, then you have a responsibility to the team to let the employee go. Talk with HR, coordinate with your leadership, and follow through with the procedure. It will be a difficult conversation, and you will run the risk of thinking about all of the time and effort you’ve spent to rehabilitate the performance of this one employee. You will wonder if you should overlook some failure or give them one more chance.
You are experiencing the turmoil of the sunk cost fallacy. You have already set clear expectations by this point, and you have already set consequences. Remember that, and proceed from a position of inner strength.
With Great Management Comes Great Responsibility
At the start of the process, it’s easy to say, “But this is so much trouble! I should just be able to give them their tasks and let them sink or swim!” If your team member fails during the process, you might think, “I can simply make up for their deficit in some other way. Keeping the team together is more important than the problems I’d cause by letting someone go.”
Sure, you could do that. You could fall back on one of those responses during this process, but then you wouldn’t actually be a manager. Management is hard. It takes a lot of work, it encompasses a lot of responsibility, and it generally doesn’t reward as well as the effort might indicate. Your job is to ensure the success of the team, as it relates to the project goals, the division goals, and the corporate goals. At the same time, your job is to work with a bunch of people, each of whom has different goals, concerns, and problems of their own.
It’s a balancing act. I’ve heard it compared to the old Vaudeville act where a performer would spin several plates on poles at once. That’s a fairly accurate description of how it feels. Some days, it’s thrilling. Some days, it’s frustrating. It’s never dull, that’s for sure.