Performance management is key to sustaining a high-performing team where staff feel a sense of purpose and connection and take ownership over reaching goals. But what do you do when someone isn’t performing well—they’re not meeting expectations, hitting goals, or demonstrating the must-haves of their role? How much should you invest in performance improvement? When is it time to let someone go? And, how the #@$% do you decide?
Whatever the origin of the problem, you need to own the solution. When you notice a performance issue, you have a number of options—avoidance isn’t one of them. Your job is to own staff development and performance management, which includes spotting and addressing problems when they arise, and doing so in a way that advances racial equity and inclusion, promotes personal and organizational sustainability, and gets lasting results.
You are responsible for dealing with performance problems even (sometimes especially!) when:
- You haven’t been a perfect manager
- The problem is a result of a hiring mistake
- The problem started before you got there
- It seems like just a personality clash between two team members
- You think the staff member might leave on their own
- You really don’t have the time
Whatever your context (whether you’re in a school or a nonprofit, unionized or not), the following guidance will help you navigate the tricky processes of addressing performance problems. Tailor your approach with your organization’s policies and employee agreements in mind, and consult your lawyer as necessary.
Start by reflecting on two questions:
- What is the impact of this problem (on people, relationships, culture, or results)?
- Is this a management issue or a performance issue?
The first question is a check to make sure that the problem is really a performance problem (the person isn’t meeting expectations around must-have skills or approaches) and not a conflict of preference or tradition. It also helps you see what’s at stake if the problem remains unaddressed.
The second question helps you identify what’s in your respective spheres of control. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to assign blame—it’s to name and identify the scope of the problem so that you can each own your impact and your piece of the solution.
Own the management lane.
Next, reflect on your management practices. Have you… provided clarity about expectations, roles, and goals? Built a strong and supportive relationship with the staff person? Checked your bias? Held regular check-ins where you provided support and coaching? See below for some additional choice points in the manager’s lane:
Performance management choice points:
- Roles & goals:
- Have you incorporated the four elements of relationship-building (space for authenticity, building trust, navigating difference and power, and shared purpose) in your interactions with your staff member?
- Check-ins, feedback, and delegation:
- Bias check and equity in developing people:
- Thinking about your entire team, are there any inconsistencies in who gets your time, feedback, guidance, or investment, where unintended bias could be at play?
- Will coaching, feedback, or training improve the performance issue?
- Is the problem showing up in an area that’s truly a requirement for the role, or is it more of a preference or tradition?
- Have you sought others’ perspectives in assessing the quality of their work?
Identify their sphere of control.
Owning your lane doesn’t necessarily mean owning the problem. In most cases, when there’s a performance problem, the responsibility is shared—your job is to figure out what you can do better as a manager and to be specific and direct about what they’re responsible for.
Take a look at their role and goals. What are the expectations about must-have skills or approach that you’ve already communicated and aligned on? What are expectations beyond what’s codified in their role and goals that is captured in your team culture, values, and norms?
Consider your context.
Context is the backdrop of your work together, the stuff that’s largely out of both of your control—it’s never the sole reason behind a performance problem, but it could significantly impact their performance (or your perception of it). Consider what else might be going on. Are there extenuating circumstances that could be negatively affecting their mental and emotional well-being (see: the events of 2020)? Are there organizational shifts or transitions that are creating bottlenecks, communication challenges, or stretching people thin?
2) Check in
After reflecting, check in with your staff person to share your feedback and seek their perspective. (If this is an issue you’ve already discussed multiple times, skip ahead to the next step.)
Use CSAW to prepare for the conversation. If it’s a problem that you believe could escalate or can’t be resolved with some feedback—or even if you’re simply not sure—use the manager reflection worksheet in our Performance Improvement Plan Toolkit.
Keep in mind:
Spheres of control.
In your feedback, be explicit about what you think is in your respective spheres of control. Own your part(s) and be firm that they are responsible for how they show up and what they accomplish.
Don’t jump to decisions.
If you’re checking in about the issue for the first time, your goal is to sound an alarm, not (necessarily) to resolve the situation in one conversation. The purpose is to avoid surprises down the line, whatever you choose to do. It’s good to identify next steps for moving forward (the “W” in CSAW is for “Wrap up”), but we don’t recommend making any on-the-spot decisions about performance improvement plans.
Corrective vs. developmental feedback.
Both types of feedback are intended to help someone grow. The difference is about consequences. Corrective feedback helps someone get from off track to on track. If nothing changes (or changes enough), there will be more steps taken to resolve the issue, with letting go as a possible option. Developmental feedback helps people take their skills from good to great, or from meeting to exceeding expectations. If nothing changes as a result, the person likely won’t suffer negative consequences. A common manager error is not being explicit about the type of feedback they are offering. This can lead to a staff person interpreting corrective feedback as developmental feedback, misunderstanding the stakes, and then being surprised by a formal warning further down the line.
Step back and assess the problem, check your biases, and weigh your options. You may also want to seek perspective from others (such as your manager or peers—discreetly) to gain more insight.
Ultimately, this step is about answering these questions:
What is really the problem?
- Its impact on other stakeholders and on the overall results of the work
- Extenuating circumstances that may be exacerbating it
- How coachable/teachable it is
What parts of it can be reasonably addressed with the resources and time available?
- The staff person’s level of awareness, skill, and will to own their pieces of the solution
- Your capacity, skill, and will to support them
- Issues in the management sphere you need to address
If the problem is addressed, how likely is the staff person to achieve and sustain the level of performance that you need?
Here, you might consider their overall track record of success in their role, including course corrections and development.
4) Consider your options and decide
Note: Before deciding on next steps, always check your existing policies and consult your HR or legal advisors. Some organizations have employee manuals or collective bargaining agreements that commit the organization to following specific progressive discipline steps. As with any employment issue where legal issues may come into play, consider speaking with a lawyer.
As a manager, you typically have three options for moving forward:
This option involves applying more resources to support the person to meet performance expectations. It could include offering ongoing, specific feedback, providing coaching and training opportunities, and side-by-side work. It can also include putting someone on a performance improvement plan (formally or informally). Below are a few common reasons for choosing this route:
- The problem is mostly a management problem, which means that the solution is in your sphere of control—you need to to improve your management practices and systems to offer more clarity, support, and/or structure.
- There are truly extenuating circumstances beyond their control that have impacted their otherwise solid (or outstanding) performance.
- The problem is coachable/teachable given your capacity, and the staff person is willing to learn.
- The problem is due to growing pains (the role has changed or the organization is growing) and both you and the staff person need time (and/or additional support) to get settled in.
Note: In an ideal world, you’d always be in some variation of “invest” mode, even if there aren’t any detectable performance problems. If you’re only investing in your staff at the point when there is a performance problem, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.
When done well, coaching out is a win-win solution for the organization and the staff member. In a coaching out conversation, the manager is honest about their assessment of the situation and offers possible paths forward, one of which includes the staff person leaving their role. The outcome is that the staff member decides to leave their role (and in most cases, the organization). It’s a useful approach when performance is not meeting expectations but there’s still hope for improvement. It can also be appropriate when the work is generally meeting expectations but the role still isn’t a great fit. The key to coaching out is offering real options so that the staff person can exercise their agency. (When the options aren’t real, coaching out conversations are just letting go conversations in disguise.)
You might be on your way to coaching out if any of the following are true:
- You’ve already tried to invest through an informal performance improvement process and there has been some improvement, but the person isn’t quite meeting expectations (or meets them inconsistently).
- The organization is changing and the staff person is unwilling or uninterested in growing and changing alongside it.
- The staff person has become bored, disengaged, or stagnant in their work.
- The staff person’s capacity or circumstances have changed in a way that might impact their ability to meet expectations.
Here, we’re using “let go” to mean “fire”—terminating someone’s employment at your organization due to performance problems. For many of our clients, letting go is a last resort. And for good reasons, too—it’s uncomfortable, irreversible, and life-altering. For those of us committed to social justice, it can feel counter to our values—we want people to feel respected and valued, we worry about impacts on their livelihood (which is one reason to offer severance packages), and we want our movements to bring people in, not let them go. It’s hard to tell someone that they’re not doing a good enough job. However, when people are struggling to meet expectations and it’s having an impact on your people and your results, letting go is sometimes the best option. Here are some indicators that it might be time to let go:
- The staff member is unwilling to grow or take feedback.
- You’ve already tried to invest through an informal or formal performance improvement process and there has been little to no improvement, or rounds of inconsistency.
- The problem creates significant burden or harm to others that cannot be reasonably mitigated with the time and resources you have available.
The above options are not mutually exclusive—they are steps on a path. Depending on the problem, the circumstances, and your organizational norms and policies, you may choose to invest first and progress to coaching out or letting go if the problem persists. For others, you might go directly to coaching out or letting go.
Did you notice that none of the options we laid out include “do nothing,” “get your boss to deal with it,” or “wait for the person to quit?” That’s because whatever you do, you need to decide. The longer you delay, the more the problem will grow—impacting others and your results. Test your thinking with your manager or a trusted colleague to check for biases. Then, communicate promptly with your staff person. Schedule a time to talk to them, prepare a script, and even practice with someone if necessary.
To see these four steps in action, check out our addressing performance problems case study.