How to turn disappointing performance into good and even excellent performance

Last week, we looked at building already good performance into even better performance by providing regular constructive and positive information. That still leaves a few straggling poor performers, though.

These are the people who give you headaches, but not big enough headaches to show them the door. You’d probably like to shoo them out the door, but when you think about the discussions you need to hold first, the ill will and other problems that could result, and the whole rigamarole of paperwork that would ensue, it’s a lot easier to sigh, wish they’d quit (which they probably won’t) and let their poor performance slide. Meanwhile, the rest of your team becomes increasingly resentful that some people are getting away with not pulling their weight and wonder why they bother. That’s how the slippery slope of a poor performing team begins.

To avoid that and have a team where everyone pulls their weight and does a grand job, follow this guiding principle: ignored problems tend to grow worse. Corrective information is the antidote.

Here are four guiding principles to follow when providing corrective information:

  1. Remember the 80:20 rule of poor performance: 80 per cent of the time, poor performance is the result of the employee not knowing what they’re actually, specifically supposed to be doing or why it’s important; a poor job fit–putting the wrong person in the job; insufficient training or lack of confidence; or cumbersome systems, procedures, poor tools and equipment, lack of time or information to do a job properly; sometimes poor teamwork and even (gasp) poor leadership is at the heart of poor performance. Think through those possibilities or discuss them with the employee before taking further action. (The other 20 per cent is ‘Acts of God’ beyond employee’s control and personal problems.) (Check through Chapter 11 for more on this.)
  2. Deal with one issue at a time. A long chain of information about what needs to be improved and how to improve it, however well intended, is hard to take and even harder to digest. It also invites suspicion and resentment and damages working relationships. People fixate on the threat you pose, not their performance.
  3. Say what you mean but don’t be mean (as the saying goes). You can’t make people do better by making them feel bad.When you make people feel bad about their performance, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can increase to such high levels that creativity, memory, planning, thinking and other higher order mental functions shut down and performance worsens–the opposite of what you want. (In fact, when research scientists what to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they give their subjects intense face-to-face criticism, causing the hormones to surge and the heart rate to spike by 30 to 40 beats per minute! Definitely not the result you’re after!)
  4. Your manner in delivering feedback is critically important. When you accompany your corrective information with positive body language signals such as nods and smiles, people feel better than when you frown and look annoyed or angry. You want poor performing employees to feel as good as possible about your information because when people feel better, they perform better; therefore, use positive and supportive body language.

Bearing those four principles in mind, here are some more specific tips.

Even corrective information given in the kindest, most helpful and positive way can still sting. So provide it in private and think through how best to phrase it beforehand. You don’t want your comments or tone of voice to be misunderstood or to crush a team member’s confidence or enthusiasm.


Keep your comments clear and objective. Describe the behaviour or unmet target that concerns you and convey your information in a positive, helpful way. Only address what people can control; that is, behaviours they can change or skills they can improve or develop. Go for the big stuff that can make a measurable difference to results that both you and others can see.

When addressing behaviours, be ultra cautious about what you call them; when you’re having trouble thinking of what to say, think about how the employee might describe the behaviour or their results. At all costs, avoid negative labels and ‘psychologising’ (guessing why someone does something).

Avoid vague statements and generalisations and be careful of confusing your opinions with facts.

Here are three ways to turn your information from a critical ‘push’ into a helpful ‘pull’:

  1. Keep your approach one of exploring, resolving and assisting, not telling or telling off.
  2. Change your ‘You’s’ into ‘I’s’ or get rid of the ‘You’s’ altogether:
    • You never ————————–> Next time, from now on, …
    • You shouldn’t … ——————-> It’s fast/easier/more accurate to …
    • You’re not doing that properly —> Let me run through how I’d like you to do
    • You don’t seem to be able to —-> I see you’re having trouble
  3. Point your comments to the future and on solutions and goals. The past is past. Keep painting the picture of the end result you’re after.