I am forever shocked by the difficulty many entrepreneurs, and other managers, have in managing the under-performing people who work for them. This is not about employees who don't have the skill to do the work, but simply about employees who don't perform at their potential. Here is what I hear:

 

"John is so frustrating; he never does what I have told him to do. He never follows procedures."

"I don't understand why Bob can't get nearly as much done as Susan. Doesn't he see how much more Susan gets done? Doesn’t he realize that he is recognized as a much worse performer than anyone in his group?"

 

Isn't it also interesting that it is very rare that when we either fire an under-performing employee, or give a bad review, the under-performing employee does not truly know beforehand that there was a critical performance issue. They respond with surprise and shock. We are all constantly amazed that these under-performing employees don't "get it" that they are critically substandard performers. Rarely do they see the ax coming for them? What is going on here?

 

There are a number of factors at play but I have thought a great deal about the way that I have seen people deal with (rationalize) their under-performing realities. I have found that there are five categories of this rationalization:

  • Outright denial of the situation--my performance is not bad, your measurement of it is flawed
  • Acceptance--it is true but I make up for it in other ways and thus I am valuable
  • Acceptance--it is true but I chose not to try hard because I am above all this
  • Denial by changing the norm--I should be measured by you against a different criteria and in this different measure, I am performing well.
  • Acceptance--it is true but I am in denial that the manager realizes it (this is rare)

 

When I work with my clients on this issue, I use the following example as an illustration: Clearly there are people who are above average looking, average looking and below average looking. Do those who are below average looking admit that? It is doubtful. There is a often convergence to the norm. In other words, those who are below average would probably say, "I am not the best looking, but I am around average" and that would be good enough for them to avoid dealing with the unpleasant reality and this is an example of outright denial. Another way people deal with it is that they might say, "Yes, I am below average in looks but I make up for it in my personality" which is acceptance but that they make up for it in other ways. For changing the norm, "yes, I am below average by some measures but I have very beautiful eyes." And finally, they also might say, "yes, I am below average in looks but that is only because I don't try very hard to keep myself up."

 

Aren't these the same kind of excuses that under-performing employees give?

 

"Yeah, I do less than Susan but I am the one that plans the Christmas party. (Acceptance but I make up for it in other ways)"

"Yeah, I do less than Susan but Susan is the exception. I am average in the group except for her. (Denial by changing the norm)"

"Yeah, but I can do so much more. I under-perform because I am not challenged. (I am above all this)"

 

If you are an entrepreneur reading this, you have built a business and you did that be being able to look into the face of failure and accept and work with your own shortcomings. You are a performer and you probably don't need motivation--you have it internally. How do we deal with under-performing people?

 

The first way we have to deal with under-performance is to simply not allow denial or rationalization to exist in any form. You need to drive this from the mind of the employee. Employees need to KNOW, beyond any doubt, that they are working below expectations and that their employment won't continue at that level of performance--in fact, it won't continue at anywhere near that level of performance. This message has to be loud, clear and beyond any doubt or wiggle room. If you do written performance reviews (which I recommend), this has to be clearly stated. You also must articulate what the definition of the level of performance is. Employees must not be permitted to hide either their performance or behind their excuses for their performance.