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Poor Performers Probably Don’t Know

by David Brock on January 15th, 2014

Addressing performance issues is always tough.  Many managers are uncomfortable discussing poor performance issues with poor performers.

There are a number of factors that could make these conversations even more difficult–for both the manager and poor performer.  Here some things that make these conversations very difficult:

First, poorly defined performance expectations. I’m amazed had how many organizations don’t put in place well defined performance plans.  A quota isn’t a performance plan!  It’s an element of a performance plan, but a good performance plan clearly defines performance expectations, development expectations and a number of other things.  It should include quantitative and qualitative objectives.  Ideally, the performance plan is developed collaboratively between the sales person and manager.  Ideally, we periodically through the year, we review how the person is doing against those criteria.  Performance plans can be very powerful in defining the behaviors we expect, creating development and growth plans, and in helping the person understand overall expectations.

But too often, these aren’t in place.  The sales person has no idea how their performance will be evaluated and no idea whether they are performing well or not.

Overlay this with no or poor coaching from management.  As managers, our job is to maximize the performance of every person on our team.   The highest leverage tool we have to do this is coaching our people, helping them understand their current performance, helping them discover the problems with that performance, and helping them improve.  But coaching poor performers is tough.  It’s more fun and engaging to work with our top performers.  With poor performers, it’s a challenge, the conversations are sometimes difficult, the progress is slower than we would like.  Sometimes, we struggle in trying to identify how to help them improve.

And that’s if we are attempting to coach at all—-the problem is, too often, poor performers just don’t get any or the right kind of coaching.

The challenge doesn’t stop there.

There is a recent study mentioned in the HBR blog that says “poor performers often don’t recognize they are poor performers, ……. often vastly overestimating their performance.”  They cite a study where people were asked to respond to a set of questions, then asked, “How many do you think you got right?”  The lowest scorers had an average response of 7 out of 10, when in reality they got 0 right.

It kind of makes sense.  If people don’t know what good performance is, if they don’t understand performance expectations, they are very likely to have a mistaken impression of their own impression.  Add to that the fact that it’s human nature for most of us to overestimate our own performances; the results of this study are very understandable.

So in addition to their poor performance, poor performers have a lot that’s outside their abilities going against them.  The bottom line, they just may not realize they are poor performers!

So what do we do?  Many might respond, “Why bother!”  Others might say, “Get rid of them!”

I don’t think that’s the right answer.  We, as leaders, have put them in their jobs.  It’s our obligation as leaders to clearly define performance expectations, making sure they understand them.  It’s our job to provide clear and direct feedback on their performance, coupled with coaching on how to improve their performance.   We can get poor performers to understand their performance gaps.  We can help them improve performance through setting clear objectives and coaching.  Some will respond and improve, some may not and we may have to take other actions.

But we can’t ignore them and we can’t expect them, or anyone for that matter, to understand how they are performing without clear performance objectives and feedback.

Do your poor performers understand your expectations?

Do they understand how they are falling short?

Do they understand, specifically, what they need to do to improve their performance?  (As well as the consequences of not improving their performance.)

Are you providing effective coaching and ongoing feedback to help them improve?

Do you have an accurate view of your own performance?

From → Leadership

  1. Hi David,

    What are the top 5 elements you think should be on a performance plan for sales? How would these typically be measured?

    – Richard.

    • Richard: This is really a great question. If you don’t mind, I’d like to defer the response to a blog post. I’ll put something up in the next couple of days. Thanks for the provocative idea!

  2. You exposed the dark underbelly of performance reviews.

    I was shocked when my regional sales managers told me that they spend less than 30 minutes face-to-face with a subordinate during a performance review. The reason being that none of them ever had a boss who took reviews as seriously as they should.
    In their minds, a review had two objectives:
    * Tell the employee the % raise and bonus that he/she received.
    * Give the employees their list of Needs Improvement
    What about the things the sales person/manager does well or exceptionally well?

    To improve Performance Reviews, I developed a list of qualities and capabilities that are keys to success for every person in the sales organization. One list has 20 Personal/Professional attributes. The other list contains 9 Inter-relationship/Skills.

    * Each item can be rated STRONG MODERATE WEAK plus a COMMENTS section
    * Reviewers do not make the assessments. That is done by the person being reviewed.
    * The person being reviewed brings the completed form to the face-to-face review meeting.
    * The boss has the opportunity to acknowledge each and every good quality and skill of the subordinate (“My boss really understands me!”)

    * The boss can boost an assessment where the employee was a bit self-critical.
    * This sets the stage for the boss to comfortably discuss the one or two (Max is 2) items that Need Improvement (Improvement in the current position or required for advancement).
    * Reviews became open, honest and relaxed.

    * All Needs Improvement were mutually agreed upon and the boss had a level of ownership in the outcome.
    * The lists were used as worksheets. They were not put in the personnel file.
    * Reviews now lasted much longer than 1/2 hour.
    * Comments were unconstrained and forthright.
    * Reviews were no longer driven top-down


    The Regional Managers spent quality time, and lots of it, with each team member.
    Reviews were no longer viewed as a trip to the dentist.
    Everyone felt valued, appreciated and motivated.

    • Vince, thanks so much for sharing this with us! You’ve provided an awesome resource to all of us.

  3. Gary Peyrot permalink

    It takes a long time and a lot of money to hire and train someone. If you’re doing something wrong and can salvage the employee then by all means do so!

    Still, a lot of people who habitually perform poorly are blamers and nothing is ever their fault…

    • Great observation Gary. We all have to take responsibility for our performance. Blaming others, doesn’t help us learn and improve.

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