Grasping the Nettle of Problem Performance or Behaviour

I have been listening to a number of managers recently who are feeling frustrated by colleagues and staff who aren’t doing what they should be doing or are behaving in ways that the manager finds unacceptable.

What really stands out for me is how much time and energy is being spent on these issues. The “problem” person is being discussed with numerous people, being thought about an inordinate amount of time, and is causing stress and frustration left right and centre.

In most cases, the “problem” person isn’t even aware there’s a problem. The manager is talking to everyone except the person involved.

It’s similar to driving along a road when someone suddenly zooms past and cuts you up. You are furious. “How dare they!” “They shouldn’t be allowed on the road!” etc. You complain to whoever will listen, about the injustice of it all. You might even feel angry long after the event, whenever you think about it. Meanwhile the driver is oblivious to what they’ve done and the impact they’ve had on you.

The difference is, with colleagues at work you have the opportunity to address it. In fact, you have a professional responsibility to do so. If someone is under performing in terms of results, or behaviours, they need to be made aware of it and given the opportunity and support to put it right.

I don’t believe anyone sets out to be a poor performer. If they are falling short, there are numerous possible reasons for it. The most common ones are:

  • They don’t know what to do
  • They don’t know how to do it
  • They don’t know why they should do it
  • They think they are doing it

So, the next time you’re feeling frustrated by the actions or inaction of someone at work, just stop and think about why this might be happening. What could be getting in the way? Then go and have a frank conversation with them to discuss:

  1. Specifically what they are doing or not doing that isn’t working for you
  2. How their actions are impacting you, others or the task
  3. What you need them to do differently
  4. How they are going to achieve that, and what support they need

Just think, if someone at work was talking to everyone except you about an aspect of your work that they found unacceptable, would you rather they talk to you, or to everyone but you?

Is it time to grasp the nettle? You’ll need to make the first move.

13 Responses to Grasping the Nettle of Problem Performance or Behaviour

  • Hi Julie,

    Just found your web site whilst research a book I am writing entitled ‘Employers Have rights Too’. Your article does not cover the fundamental issues surrounding manager’s reluctance to Grasp the Nettle.

    Tackling a poor performing employee is:
    Complicated – not as simple as gross-misconduct
    Time consuming – it often involves a great deal of planning, discussion, note writing.
    Uncomfortable – Nobody likes dealing with this type of confrontation
    Risky – It does not matter how well you discuss the situation, many employees will still see it as a reprimand and resort to ‘bulling’ claims, go off sick or leave and take a claim out against the organisation.
    Quite simply, it is far easier and safer to just maintain the status quo (management) rather than challenging the status quo (Leadership)

    What managers need is encouragement and motivation in the tackling of poor performance unfortunately your article and many others on the subject tend to discourage rather than encourage.

    Unless you can clearly outline the WIIFM factor, managers will continue to tolerate rather than address poor performance.

    From someone who has the scars!!

    • Thanks for your comments Anthony. I believe we may be talking different ends of the “performance” spectrum here. For example, two days ago, I was contacted by a newly appointed manager about a member of her team who had, three times, sent her work straight to the company director, completely bypassing this manager. Both the director and manager agreed this was inappropriate but she was hesitating over having the conversation with the staff member. We talked through the likely consequences of not making this person aware of the issue for the manager herself, the other person who may not be aware she is doing anything wrong or why it is an issue, and for the business. We then considered how to set up and structure the conversation for best effect.

      As a long standing hands on manager myself, I agree that once you get further down the performance management road which could lead to disciplinary procedures then that’s a more complex scenario where good advice needs to be sought and hopefully your book will be one way of getting that. However, if you scare managers into avoiding nipping issues in the bud rather than helping them to have honest, caring and constructive conversations like the one in my example, then they will not be carrying out their basic management responsibilities and increasing the likelihood of the performance management issues you are referring to..

      • How about starting a debate?

        We have a major problem in many businesses today:

        Many Line Managers are not addressing poor performing employees
        Many Middle Managers are not addressing poor performing Line Managers
        Many executives discourage rather than encorage managers in the addressing of poor performance issues because they fear the cost of litigation, absence etc.

        How do we address this problem?

        • I agree wholeheartedly with you on this Anthony and the debate is certainly needed. I believe one part of the equation is a lack of access to appropriately skilled, experienced and confident HR professionals that would provide the managers with the robust support and advice they need.

          • Hi Julie,

            You have hit the nail on the head. Industry does not have enough Skilled (Know what to do), Experienced (Have actually felt the pain and discomfort) and Confident (Doesn’t panic at the first sign of problems) HR Advisors.

            Are you aware that the only training HR trainees are given on the subject of poor performance management is ‘Read ACAS Procedures on Disciplinary and Grievance’

            Were you also aware that this year ACAS produced a 48 page ‘Code on Managing Performance’ but only one page was given to managing poor performance and then as with all their advice on poor performance ‘refer to you disciplinary Procedures’ was the only real advice given.

            I am afraid there is a lot of blind leading the blind.

            Have a look at this case study from my book:

            Peter was under investigation at work. He was feeling very uncomfortable, stressed and very insecure in his management job. His offence? He tackled a poor performing employee who subsequently took out a formal grievance against him for bullying.
            It was Peter’s first Manager job, he was appointed Manager of a supermarket in a well know high street supermarket business. The previous Manager had been ‘moved on’ because he did not tackle poor performance within the team. At his interview for the job he was told by his Middle Manager “To turn this store around you will need to address performance issues – grasp the nettle and you will make a name for yourself!”
            One of the first issues Peter experienced in the store was poor attendance – almost every day someone was ringing in sick. On reviewing absence records he identified a warehouse operative named ‘Derek’ who was obviously taking advantage of the companies’ sickness benefits. Derek’s records clearly showed numerous instances of sick days before or after weekends, holidays etc. there was clear evidence of abuse.
            Never having tackled an issue like this before, Peter contacted his Middle Manager for permission to address the issue. His Middle Manager was very positive about Peter ‘grasping the nettle’ and gave him the go ahead to address the issue with the employee. Encouraged by his Middle Manager’s comments, Peter called Derek to the office to talk about his attendance record. Peter never got started because Derek refused to discuss the matter. “You have no right to talk to me about my sick record” Derek said before storming out of the office. Taken aback by what had happened Peter rang his Middle Manager, explained what had happened and asked for his advice. Summoning up many years of middle management experience, his Middle Manager said..… “Speak to HR!!!”
            Following confirmation from his HR Advisor that he had every right to discuss someone’s attendance record, Peter again asked Derek to come to his office. Derek again refused saying “I don’t care who you have spoken to, my sickness is my business and no body else’s”. Even more frustrated with the matter, Peter contacted his HR Advisor again and explained the situation and asked for further advice. After a great deal of reluctance, the HR Advisor agreed to talk to Derek but not before voicing negative comments about Peter’s competence in dealing with these types of issues.
            Following discussions with the HR Advisor, Derek agreed to talk to Peter but only if he had someone with him to witness what was said. Peter naively agreed, and the company union representative joined Derek and Peter in the office. Needless to say both Derek and the Union Rep were very hostile and argumentative about Peter personally and accused him of having an aggressive and bullying style of management. Inevitably the meeting ended in a shouting match between Peter and the Union Rep and discussions ended with Derek and the Union Rep storming out of the office making harassment and bullying accusations. Verbally assaulted and feeling stupid Peter felt at least he had got the message across.
            Ten minutes following the meeting, Peter received a call from the HR Advisor. “We have received a complaint from your Union Rep regarding your aggressive style and the unprofessional way you conducted the meeting”. The HR Advisor also added that Derek would be taking out a grievance against Peter for bullying. Peter was then told that once the grievance letter was received the complaint would have to be investigated. Peter was explained his ‘rights’ in the matter and then received a long lecture about the dangers of having a bullying style of management. The next call Peter received was from his Middle Manager saying “well you made a right cock-up of that didn’t you!!” who then proceeded to give him a reprimand for not handling the situation correctly. The Middle Manager said that he had spoken to the employee who had agreed to withdraw his complaint but only if Peter apologised for his aggressive behaviour, which peter did.
            Because of what happened Peter was reluctant to grasp the nettle again and commenced his management career discouraged from tackling poor performance rather than encouraged in doing so.

  • Hi Julie
    Great article! We often spend more time talking and discussing instead of doing. Appreciate the thoughts on finding ways to calmly and constructively address problems.

    Am enjoying browsing your site – very similar in approach and philosophy to my mentorship blog Can you use your stuff for guest blogs?


    • Hi Meryle, thanks for the great feedback on the article and site. Yes feel free to use any of my posts as guest posts on your site, which I will definitely check out.

      Please just add the following credit:

      Julie Kay is a learning and leadership specialist who’s blog at aims to help leaders and managers step out of their busy days for a couple of minutes to review what they are doing and consider other ways.

  • Simple, direct, helpful guidance. Your article made me think of Covey: “Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood.” Who knows? Perhaps judgments, conclusions and beliefs to which we’ve attached ourselves with regard to another’s actions, or non-actions, are based in ungrounded assessments we’ve made about the person. Could it be possible we are — wait for it — WRONG??

    • Nicely put Renee. Thanks for adding value to the discussion. I often come across people who are tying themselves in knots trying to second guess the motivations and thinking of others, and the last thing they have considered is having the conversation and asking questions.

  • “It’s similar to driving along ……”

    My wife has found the best way to deal with this is too dole imaginary license suspensions, sometimes even a complete revocation of the offenders driving privileges for life.

    Anyways,good article I haven’t managed anyone but myself for awhile but I remember this very issue.

  • Thanks Julie,
    This advise landed just as it was needed!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *