How to deal with Low Performance Employees

Since I wrote a post about modern management techniques, a friend of mine has been giving me some really good feedback. Part of the discussion I had with him recently was about the concept of providing more positive feedback to higher performers while spending lesser time working with and providing constructive feedback to the lower performers. The final goal is as always to get the most out of your employees without burning them out and making sure that they enjoy a decent work-life balance.

I had read about a theory by a researcher named Losada about a specific numerical figure that determines the ratio between positive and negative feedback for high performing teams. I had mentioned it in my past blog post and have also referred to it in conversations with friends and co-workers. My friend wanted to know more about this and I set about researching it last night. Well, it turns out that the numerical method of calculation was debunked last year (2014) in a scathing paper denouncing the practices. The original article appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 and was called “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” Since the work is under question, there is no point in discussing it here. Much has been said about it already. My only addition would be to say how disappointed I was in learning that studies such as this, ones that have been referred to in so many good publications and courses, are in fact low on fact and high on lies. False data and bogus conclusions really hurt Science. This has such a negative impact on the credibility of Science as a field that I feel a more pronounced reaction is necessary to prevent other scientists from wanting to falsify data.

That being said, I surmise that the basic premise is still true.

Managers are critical by nature. Their ability to be detail oriented and get results is what got them the job in the first place. So it should not come as a surprise that we tend to be hard on the people that work for us. Even in the most effective and efficient team, a manager will always be able to find things not done according to their own plan. How they deal with this is up to them and their management style. Depending on the makeup of the team, they might find it beneficial to let small irritations pass without pointing them out. They might let the team figure out their issues organically and encourage the team to hold each other accountable for their actions. They might even be afraid of their team and ignore problems to avoid being the bad guy.

I have been managing small teams for some time and in almost every team I have found problems that needed addressing. In dealing with issues, I force myself to have an inner monologue as a manager. I only do a few things that bears mentioning here in addition to the obvious. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I do not mix positive and negative feedback. I keep negative feedback factual, succinct and directed at outcomes. I also record all the significant negative feedback that I have provided in a text file. I also try not make social friends out of the people that report to me.

When I run into chronic performance problems at work, I tend to fall back to my training. I write down my planned interactions for trouble employees. I like to keep these meetings short, to the point and have the goal of walking out of each with a plan of action for the employee. The employee and I agree on one or two simple metrics for me to track until the next meeting and we go back to work. The goal for me is to not turn low performers into high performers at that time. I simple plan on stopping loss. Once performance stabilizes for the employee, I start treating them with positive feedback for anything they do above and beyond the minimum detailed in the metrics. If there are other issues to be solved, I try to get them all to a state of stability before attempting the positive feedback technique so as not to confuse them. They quickly learn that withholding of positive feedback is actually unsatisfying to them, unsatisfying enough that they want do more than quid pro quo. Does this work every time? No. Does it work often enough to make me want to try this method every time? Yes.

Some of the wind in my sails about this method and the quantitative research that supported it has been shed as of yesterday and for that I am quite disappointed. My experience says that this works primarily in cases of mild to medium performance issues and does nothing for employees who are militant or downright malicious. I have sought HR help in every one of those cases and tried to follow their advice to the tee.

Do you have any advice for me and my readers?