You can’t steer a parked car …… should you manage your under-performer up or out?

Under-performers, bottom quartile performance, staff that cost you money, employees that risk your reputation – those people in your team who just aren’t making the grade.  They keep us awake at night; they take up our leadership time with counselling, observations, reviews and numerous one on one discussions.  I’ve had my fair share over the years. The recruitment industry is notorious for staff turnover, usually the result of poor hires, incorrect culture fits, those lacking in the right competencies, motivational fit or we just got schmoozed by some new hot shot that convinced us they could cold call (music to our ears)!  The problem is when this happens to someone in your team do you performance manage out or up?

Of course the answer is – it depends.  If at the core, the match is right – motivation and culture fit, then you owe it to yourself and the individual to invest in coaching them up to top performance.  If you know in your heart of hearts that the long term alignment and values are out of whack – then count your losses and do it quickly. Don’t stretch out the pain and suffering for yourself, the existing team or the individual – it just makes it harder to cut the cord.

In my experience, the difference between top performers and those struggling to keep up, consistently comes down to one thing. Yes, that’s right, one thing.  And that’s action.  Taking action. Taking the right action. Taking the right action consistently.

Easy right? Come on, it really isn’t that hard or that difficult. People in general just waste a lot of time on the wrong things. Time and time again I find myself thinking “just do it”! Just get on the phone, just make that call, just see that client, just screen that CV and just make a decision! For goodness sake, it really isn’t that hard.

As a leader there is only so much you can do –you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink and you certainly can’t steer a parked car.

It ultimately comes down to desire – does the staff member want to be here? Do they want to achieve top performance and here’s the clincher….are the prepared to be coached and take the necessary action to get there?

What are the top 3 – 5 critical actions that this person must take to achieve top performance? Are you both clear what these tasks are and can you easily measure them? All jobs are made up of hundreds of little things and it is so easy to get distracted with emails, reactionary requests and time wasting through over preparation, research and blatant procrastination. Top performers are always organised, know what is important and get on with doing those things first.

I had a Consultant who worked for me for 7 years who achieved financial success, won new clients, built relationships with senior leaders in many corporate organisations in Adelaide and guess what? There was a time when she was an under-performer. I remember it so clearly. It was in her first 12 months and I was at the end of my tether with frustration over the mistakes she was making of no follow up, not asking great questions and not being face to face with clients.  The break-through moment was having an honest and direct conversation about where she was performing and where she needed to be. This conversation was not easy, but an essential first step to building top performance.  I asked if she wanted to be a top performer? Was she open to receiving feedback? Was she prepared to be uncomfortable in the journey?  Making it easier for me was the fact that she was completely receptive.  It was a tough 3 months of brutal honesty, lots of observation, feedback and coaching.  She responded with top performance resulting in increased revenue, quality of service, 7 years retention, inspiration to the team, a new zest of energy and respect.  She is a close friend and colleague to this day.

Performance issues don’t have to be a leadership headache.  It can be an opportunity to bring out the best in someone and give them their moment to shine.

People respect honesty and communication in any situation, but especially in the context of non-performance.  This is usually uncomfortable for both parties and is the elephant in the room no-one wants to talk about. If we don’t talk about it, maybe it will got away. It doesn’t. Under-performance can happen at any time to a new recruit or to a top performer after several years of success.  Our effectiveness as leaders is knowing how to have the conversation to turn it around and being committed to seeing the plan through.  Coming out the other side is a break-through moment that leads to ongoing top performance and success for you, the individual and the business.

Commit to increasing performance in your team – being uncomfortable is a small short-term price to pay for a long term top performance retention strategy.

4 thoughts on “You can’t steer a parked car …… should you manage your under-performer up or out?

  1. Completely agree Nicole. Ignoring it won’t make it go away! We have a fabulous leader in management who is religious about making sure that all team members have the tools to do their job well and excel in their workplace. Sometimes the tool is a positive ‘shove’ in the right direction. Your comments about staff ‘wanting to’ and ‘can they do’ are paramount. We have seen several successes in performance managing staff to reach their potential and achieve what is required by them in the organisation. Having the harsh chat about performance is always difficult, but taking the time to do it well, enhancing their displayed positive qualities that make you know that they can do better and reflecting on what they could potentially achieve in the bigger picture as part of the team has seen us convert staff not only to meet our expectations but to excel beyond them.

  2. Hi Nicole,

    I agree entirely and in all cases when there’s an unaddressed issue of poor performance the buck stops with the manager NOT the employee.

    The thing is; many managers just want an easy life and to remain popular. Having courageous conversations can be a show stopper for many. These issues must be addressed for the reasons you’ve highlighted and especially important is the ripple effect on the rest of the workforce because if you as a manager know that someone isn’t making the grade – then the chances are that their colleagues have been aware of it for longer than you have.

    Decisive action must be taken through coaching/mentoring and honest balanced feedback. And if, at the end of the day there’s no possible room for improvement to the required standard; then it’s time for goodbyes and no hard feelings. Inevitably some will slip through the net during recruitment and induction. The challenge is to make the process robust enough to spot the weaklinks before offering them the contract and yet at the same time; ensuring your recruitment process stands the test of reasonableness.

    Best wishes,


  3. Great stuff, Nicole. You nail the critical point – ‘having an honest and direct conversation about where she was performing and where she needed to be’. There’s zero chance of things improving unless this conversation is had by the manager Unfortunately most managers don’t know how to have these conversations and so they never happen until it is too late and at this point theemployee’s motivation is so low they see a new job as the only option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s