Dear Dr. Sadaqat Ali,Dr Sadaqat Ali

I head a boutique. I am struggling with two low performers and their irresponsibility for months. We upgraded our software systems several years ago, and they still do not understand how the software works. Their best performance on average lies in medium range, but there is not enough cause to terminate them. Customers don’t complain about them, but they never receive compliments either.

I have a waiting list of excellent applicants trying to get into my boutique that could elevate our team’s performance, but I feel as though I am stuck with these few who are not up to mark. How should I handle employees who just perform to meet the minimum standards?

Managing Averageness From the Desk of Dr. Sadaqat Ali


Dear Managing Averageness,

I am going to suggest more work than you might have hoped. But I can assure you that if you really want to raise performance for not only these two low performers, but for the entire team, this is the route you have to take. First, let’s agree on the real problem. The issue you’re facing is not two low performers. The issue is low expectations and of course accountability. If these two team members are truly  low performers and yet “there is not enough cause to terminate them,” then you are operating in a culture with mediocre norms. And if that’s true, then the work you have to do is not first and foremost with the two low performers, it is with chronically bad norms.

Over the years, as we’ve consulted with managers to work on accountability skills. We have concluded that in low performing cultures, people don’t hold others accountable. Whereas when supervisors hold others accountable it leads toward a good performing culture. However, best performing cultures are those where everyone can and does hold everyone else accountable.

The first issue to be solving here is expectation problem. If you don’t, your action against these employees will likely be seen as unfair and confusing. Over the years, we’ve had performance concerns with employees in our company as well, and while we’ve not always been perfect, we’ve tried to hold ourselves to a standard that no one’s termination will ever come as a surprise.

That’s quite a burden to put on the management of a boutique. But it is the right burden. The first goal is to set new norms. They were required to be much more specific and clear about concerns, and then follow with progressive discipline for defined periods of time. It results into three important things; first Employees learned far more from this painful process. Secondly they were far more likely to feel justly treated at the end and last but not the least departure built trust, rather than insecurity, in the rest of the organization as employees learned that there would be no “surprises” in their careers if managers had concerns about their performance.

So, how do you reset norms? How can you set a high performance standard that makes dealing with mediocrity much clearer? First thing in this regard is Confirm Standard and clear expectation. You and your employees need to have a uniform and explicit understanding about the kind of performance you expect from people. Clarity is needed on the process, steps or behaviors, and on the outcomes and results. If you want A-players in all positions, you’ll have to pay for them. You’ll have to be willing to search for them. You’ll need to invest in developing them. And you’ll need to remove those who don’t make the grade. The next step is to Go Public.

Once you have new and higher performance standard, you’ll have to go public. Let people know the bar is being raised. Let them know of any implications for jobs, for development, and any other consequences people will need to understand so there are no surprises. Acknowledge that the norms were different in the past, without sounding self-righteous and judgmental of past leadership. Frankly state how things will be going forward and why this is right for the organization and good for those involved.

Now comes the most important consideration; do not underestimate coaching and also need to replace. If someone performs below the standard, coach them—have the “content” conversation to let them know the gap between what they did and what you expected. If it continues, coach again but let them know this is now a chronic concern. People are excellent at masking ability problems. Does this employee need additional skill building? Are there any other barriers that lead to low performance? Do cater this gap.

After all these steps if it happens again, it’s time for a “relationship” conversation. At this point the person must know that termination or reassignment is an option. After this clarify the consequences and then follow through. One of the biggest concerns I had as I read your question is this statement: “for months…” This problem has gone on for too long. People often assume that to be nice they need to work on an issue for a long time. Not so.

If you’ve clarified expectations, made sure she is capable, and removed barriers, then you need to help motivate her and Motivate with natural consequences. After you have shared with her what her low performance has done to business, now you need to start a discipline process. This process often includes probation, suspension without pay, and then termination. A fair and patient process gives people the clarity, the support, and the time they need to improve. If they don’t improve, they need to be let go.

Avoiding the consequences is not positive for you, the company, or for your direct report. In conclusion, the greatest challenge you’ll face in coaching is not the individual’s performance, but your own clarity. Far too few managers/heads know how to articulate the difference between average performance and great performance. And if you can’t describe it you can’t expect it. You must do the hard work of detailing the behaviors and results you expect to see and contrasting those with typical average performance. Every minute you spend more expertly articulating expectations will save you an hour in debate and resentment later.

I know this is a longer answer than you may have wanted, but it’s definitely worth the work.

Warmly, Dr Sadaqat Ali                                                                                                                                                            

Concluded