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Ignore poor performance at your peril

Managing poor performance is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership. It requires tactful conversations that meet business needs, preserve employee dignity and wellbeing, and stay on the right side of employment law. 

It’s no wonder that many leaders shy away from dealing directly with these issues. Some take a wait and see approach, hoping that magically things will come right. Others remove responsibilities or do work-arounds, avoiding the poor performer. And some do nothing at all, clinging to the hope that the poor performer might get the message and leave. 

Leaving poor performance unchecked is a risk that leaders simply can’t afford to take, and yet it is happening in every workplace across the motu. In our surveys it is the most common complaint from workers relating to leader performance. Not only does it deny the employee the opportunity for success by not giving them the constructive feedback they deserve to hear, it also erodes team culture and engagement, and portrays leaders as being weak and unable to deal with sticky issues. 

Across New Zealand organisations failing to deal with poor performance is one of the biggest blindspot gaps between leaders and their teams. It is one of the lowest scores for leaders, with little or no improvement in scores over the past three years. 

Leaving poor performance unchecked is a risk that leaders simply can’t afford to take, and yet it is happening in every workplace across the motu. 

Leaders owe it to themselves, and their teams to lift their own leadership game. When poor performance is not addressed it affects everyone, undermining culture and productivity, and demotivating those that are performing – a real “gotcha” in the current labour market. Rather than just boosting the stars in their organsiation, leaders should be tackling poor performance, as a key tactic to retain top performers.  Leaders cannot afford to confuse being caring, flexible, and supportive with absolving them from the responsibility of honest conversations and giving ongoing, regular feedback on areas for improvement. 

This kind of approach, where constructive feedback is a regular part of 1:1 discussions, nips potential issues in the bud, preventing escalation and formal performance management. It gives people what they want, is supportive, and sets them up for success. Leaders can also foster employee self-awareness, by asking people where they think they are doing well and what they feel their upsides might be?.  

Being able to have these conversations and deliver constructive feedback, and where necessary manage performance is at the heart of leadership responsibility. Leaders need to be trained and supported to be able to have those conversations, and that’s where HR professionals can help. Remember, most leaders are not inherently skilled in this area, it is a learned competency. 

Top tips for leaders: 

  • Set expectations at the outset 
  • Make constructive feedback a regular part of every 1:1 discussion 
  • Withholding feedback inhibits success  
  • Coach for improvement, and play to your worker’s strengths 
  • Seek feedback from your peers, are your observations of performance fair? 
  • Acknowledge progress 
  • Act quicky when things go off track
  • Seek expert help when you need it.
Leaders, take heart. Teams are looking for their leaders to “do what it says on the tin” and be leaders. So take the bull by the horns and give your people what they’re asking for. 


Date: 31st August 2022
Chris O’Reilly
Chris O’Reilly
Chris co-founded AskYourTeam as a way to make it easier for leaders to ask their teams the most important (and the least-asked) question in business: “How can I help you do your job better?”
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