The Value of Early Action for Declining Performance

One of the challenging parts of being a manager is dealing with poor performance.

If you are a manager long enough, you will encounter a decline in performance from one of your direct reports. How you deal with that decline will determine the outcome. Usually, declining performance doesn’t get better—so when you uncover it, take immediate corrective action!

Deal with declining performance by:

  1. Addressing it early. The sooner you identify and deal with a poor performer’s declining performance, the easier it is to correct. The goal should always be to get the direct report’s performance back to a meets- expectation level; doing this when the decline is minor is easier than after it becomes a serious issue.
  2. Refocusing on expectations. The foundation of good management is clear alignment between you and your direct report about what good looks and sounds like for his or her job. This is called alignment on expectations. As soon as you see an indication that performance is declining, start the turnaround process by revisiting the job expectations.
  3. Providing clear and candid evidence-based feedback. Always provide clear, candid evidence-based feedback, especially when performance is declining. Evidence-based feedback focuses on observed behaviors you have seen the direct report demonstrate and then informs him or her of the negative or poor impact of those behaviors. Honesty is a critical part of this step. Couching your feedback because you don’t want to hurt the direct report’s feelings does not improve the situation.
  4. Establishing a SMART action plan. After you have communicated the feedback regarding why the direct report’s performance is declining, it’s time to jointly act. Creating an action plan that follows SMART—specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound—will increase the chances that the direct report will respond.
  5. Routinely assessing progress. Routinely providing direct reports with assessments of their progress or lack thereof ensures that they focus on improvement. It’s easy to forget to provide this assessment, but it’s critical to outcomes.
  6. Documenting conversations. Documenting performance conversations, coaching sessions, and any metrics for all your direct reports should be a routine part of your performance management process. This becomes especially important when a direct report’s performance begins to decline. Documentation helps you effectively guide the direct report’s turnaround plan. And, if he or she doesn’t respond and you need to move to probation or worse, you have a record of actions (document of record) taken for your senior management, HR, and legal group to review.

Unfortunately, a good action plan to improve performance doesn’t always work. Sometimes, regardless of your efforts, a direct report’s performance continues to decline. Involve your HR business partner and senior management in the process early and ensure you are following company policy.

Addressing declining performance is never fun. However, if you approach it with the attitude that you sincerely want direct reports to improve and you implement a plan for them to do so, you likely will succeed. However, don’t hesitate to act if they don’t respond. Your performance depends on their performance, and others on your team are watching your actions.

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