Frequently Asked Questions About Performance Problems

Last updated: June 10, 2021
Estimated reading time: 7 min


Here are some questions that we often hear regarding performance problems.

How long should you give someone to improve after warning them?

Generally, weeks rather than months. Someone who is going to improve after a warning will usually start showing improvement right away—as long as you’ve provided clear enough feedback and support. Your exact timeframe will really depend on the nature of the problem and your capacity. Factors you should consider:

  • Staff member’s learning style and prior growth
  • How much feedback they have received on their performance on this issue
  • The urgency/impact of the performance issue
  • Your capacity to provide coaching and support
  • Length/timing of training available

Most HR policies or union agreements will outline a process to follow. Where guidance isn’t available—and the problem isn’t causing immediate harm to others or the organization—an informal (verbal) warning might be followed up in one to three weeks, and a written performance improvement plan will typically cover four to six weeks, with check-ins along the way. If you’re not seeing significant improvement within six weeks, you will want to move to the next step of your progressive discipline plan.

What if the staff member has issues in their personal life that are affecting them at work (such as trouble at home, a sick family member, etc.)?

Start by expressing care and concern. Show genuine interest in what they’re dealing with outside of work, while emphasizing that it’s optional to share personal details. You can say, “I know there’s a lot going on in your life right now, so let’s figure out what we can do while you deal with this. Is there anything you’d like me to know?” Consider, too, that some seemingly personal issues are rooted in and/or exacerbated by structural oppression and marginalization. As we have recommended before, it’s important to acknowledge this, ask people what they need, and reprioritize when you can. During this conversation, give clear, direct feedback on the performance concern, its impact, and your expectations, even as you show empathy. Next, you’ll want to identify concrete adjustments or support:

  • If a staff member has performed well up until now—and the problems are really more about circumstance than competency—the plan may focus on temporary adjustments while they get through a tough time. Giving honest feedback is still important to their development and ensures no surprises later if the problem continues.
  • If the staff member has a history of performance issues, you’ll want to extend the same care and curiosity, while getting to the root of the bigger pattern and addressing the underlying problem. Assuming you have given them direct feedback before, consider whether it’s time for a formal performance improvement plan. You can say, “I understand how [X] is making it harder to show up at work right now. I want you to succeed here, so I want to be honest that some of the issues I’ve observed pre-date whatever is going on with you right now.” Identity clear, reasonable next steps. During a time of personal or socio-political crisis, you might temporarily adjust their workload, with a clear caveat that you need to see performance improvement within a specific timeframe.

Finally, if you know or suspect that their performance may have to do with health or mental health issues, it’s important to make reasonable accommodations. In these cases, you’ll want to check with your organization’s HR department and/or consult a lawyer.

What do I do when someone does great technical work but doesn’t seem to work well with others?

Too often, managers see issues like negativity or trouble getting along with others as separate from the work itself—when they’re not separate at all. It has an impact on the work and the team—and it’s your job to prevent a snowball effect. Most importantly, “trouble getting along,” can be a signal that there are issues of trust, belonging, or values alignment you need to look into.

Consider any bias that could be influencing how you or others perceive this staff member, or how they feel they’re being treated. Is there a pattern with regard to who’s considered difficult or abrasive? Could the difficulty collaborating be rooted in hidden assumptions or preferences/traditions about how people work together? Are there aspects of your organizational culture that prize certain forms of relationship-building over others?

Next, make sure roles and expectations are clear. This staff member might only be performing well at part of their role—the “what” and not the “how.” Make sure you have clearly defined the role to include the approach (the mindsets, behaviors, values) you expect from this staff member. Approach is just as important as technical skill. Make these behaviors an explicit part of the performance standard and do the same for each member of your team. Give the staff member direct feedback about the impact of their behavior and what you need to see improved. Use our CSAW approach. Being able to say, “I need someone in this role who can maintain good relationships with other teams and approach new ideas with a sense of possibility and a can-do attitude. What will it take to get there?” will help your staff member understand what you expect, and help you figure out whether or not they’re willing to improve.

Finally, if you’ve given clear feedback on the improvement you need to see and nothing has changed, don’t be afraid to move to a more formal performance warning.

What should I do when someone isn’t meeting expectations, but I can’t pinpoint concrete things they messed up either?

In our coaching work, we often find that managers get stuck in the feeling that they have to prove what the person has done “wrong” when a staff member isn’t doing well in all aspects of the role. In these cases, we advise a shift in thinking. First, remove your staff member from your thinking for now and think about what you really need the person to be able to do in this role. For instance, if you manage a communications director who is good at writing issue briefs but not great at earned media coverage, you should focus on what you really need. If you realize you need someone who can figure out how to get your message into the press even in a tough environment, you need to define this as part of the role and evaluate whether they can develop this skill. If not, the role might not be a good fit. You might say, “I see your strengths as being more research and writing. I hear that it’s hard to get media coverage on our issue, but what I need in this role is someone who can get our message out despite those challenges because our members are counting on us to shift the narrative.” By moving away from a deficiency model (“here’s what you’re doing wrong”) to a needs model (“we need someone who can do ABC so that we can accomplish XYZ”), you can change the conversation. Honor what the staff member has done well while being clear that you need something different. Ask, “What ideas do you have to grow your skill in this area?” You may be able to craft a skill development plan together, or discover the staff member is simply interested in a role change to better match their existing strengths.

What if I know I need to let someone go, but my boss isn’t convinced?

Often in this situation, your boss isn’t convinced because they have been shielded from the impact of the low performance—you’ve fixed the person’s work before they have seen it or not shared sufficient details with them about the problems you’re seeing. Try to figure out what information you have that your manager doesn’t, and then convey that to them.

I recently promoted someone who was highly skilled in their previous role, but now seems to be struggling in their new role. What do I do?

Any new position has a learning curve, even for internal hires. From your seat as the manager, you want to discern whether the struggle is normal growing pains or if the staff member maybe isn’t a fit for the role after all. First, reflect on how well you communicated new role expectations and how well the onboarding process prepared them for the new responsibilities. Get their perspective on what’s been challenging and how prepared they feel for the new or higher-level competencies in this role. Communicate openly about what’s not working with an eye toward support and solutions. If you both agree the position is a good fit, create a plan to grow their skills through a combination of coaching, feedback, training, and observation with debriefing. If the staff member doesn’t have or isn’t interested in the must-have competencies for the role—and this didn’t really come up during hiring—acknowledge their strengths and move them toward a role where they can shine. With open conversation and your genuine support, these moves don’t have to feel like a demotion. (Also, circle back to improve the way you define and test for must-haves in your hiring/promotion process).

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