TSB 015: How Executives Address Poor Performance

January 21, 2023

Read Time: 2 minutes

This week's tip: Don’t hesitate to address poor performance. Your top talent is counting on you.

Executive leaders must deliver results while retaining top talent and addressing poor performers. This requires a rare combination in an individual – a steady hand and a warm heart.

My mother’s advice when I got my first leadership role summed it up nicely. “Be firm. Be friendly. Be fair.”

Those words still resonate today, even though anxiety and frustration in the workplace are at an all-time high.  Here's how you can put her words to work for you.

Be Firm

When an individual’s performance is not meeting expectations, address it head-on. Take time during your regular 1:1 meeting with your direct reports to ask:

  1. What’s going well?
  2. What challenges are you facing?
  3. How can I be supportive?

If, after going through these standard questions, the performance challenge doesn’t come up, plainly state:

“I have a performance concern I’d like to address with you.

I’ve observed more than one instance of [fill in the blank], and I believe you are more than capable of [fill in the blank] in a way that makes us all proud. [Pause]

Would you agree?  [Allow them to respond]

From your perspective, why has this been a repeated challenge?"  [Allow them to respond]

Be Friendly

Actively listen to the explanation - yes, every word - without distraction. 

The best thing you can do here is show genuine, authentic interest. 

If you want the performance to improve, this is where your eyes, overall body language and tone of voice must all be consistent in communicating warmth and openness to hear what your team member has to say.  

Any miscommunication of intent, at this stage, will derail the process.

Once you've listened carefully, here are a few types of responses you might get:

  • Insights on a significant roadblock or barrier that needs to be addressed by you as the leader.
  • Honest challenges your team member is facing that make it difficult to perform well.
  • Excuses and why it wasn’t their fault. This is a natural reaction that leads us to the next section.

Be Fair

For the first type of response, you have a responsibility to address the significant roadblock or barrier as quickly as possible and keep your team member updated on progress. If you can’t address it, you may have to accept the poor performance until the situation is resolved.

For the second type of response, you should be empathetic and agree on the impact, the timeline, and the path forward to resolving the matter. You should be supportive without taking the problem on yourself.

If your team member makes excuses and doesn’t volunteer the steps to make sure the poor performance is addressed, ask, “What needs to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

Wrapping Up

The last two response types (honest challenges or excuses) may require some creativity in identifying training courses the person can attend, colleagues they can speak to, or resources they can seek.

Encourage the individual to pursue those options and keep you up to date on progress. Let them maintain ownership of the path forward with a clear timeline for bringing performance up to standards.

Your job is to hold them accountable.

If you don’t, it’s not fair to your top talent watching from the sidelines.  They will soon start holding you accountable or leave to find a boss that will.

Please don't hesitate to address poor performance.


See you again next Saturday!

If you're ready, there are three ways I can help you:

  1. Build your dream team using behavioral insights and validated techniques by booking a free People Strategy Call here.
  2. Book a team-building workshop here.
  3. Sign up for executive coaching here.


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