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?

Cultural Differences Between the East and the West (of the world) – Part Deux

Avoiding trouble at all costs – Indians like to avoid trouble if at all possible. Like most generalizations, it is only true for general provocations and simple conflicts. When provoked enough, an Indian can also become a mean son of a bitch, much more than would be expected by a Westerner. But that is another story. A story from my life comes to mind. At one time in my life, I had a very difficult boss. He was not very good at hiding his annoyances and appeared to be peeved all the time. I never knew what to expect from him. Much to my dismay, I worked directly for him and could not avoid working with him every day. However, I could not stand up to him. I would rather feel like crap twice a day, potentially for many years to come, than confront him and create a scene. Many Americans are surprised by what they perceived as my cowardice and have called me out on it. Conflict avoidance is part of our culture. If you consider this a weakness and push an Indian too far, you might have a mess on your hands you in the future that you did not expect.

Lining up to wait – My wife and I fly to India through Dubai often. We line up at Chicago to get on the plane and the line is orderly and there is respect of personal space and dignity. Once we are in the waiting room in Dubai, all the rules are suddenly different. Even before the flight is actually announced as ready to be boarded, every Indian in the room will rush up to the front of the room, in a large, unordered mass, around the exit to the aircraft. There is pushing and shoving and mass mayhem with absolutely no regard for personal space or for deodorant use. The two of us wait for this spectacle every time we fly through Dubai. The concept of standing patiently in line, in order, simply does not exist for us. This is even demonstrated in our (in)ability to drive within lanes. I have lots of stories about my first few months of driving in the US. Ask me about them sometime.

The truth is colorful – The truth has many flavors for us Indians. For us Indians, the truth is quite colorful. Embellishments are considered to be a normal part of the truth and exaggerations are expected to be delivered with the truth. This fact that our truth is not a concrete fact but more of a moving scale is demonstrated by our need to bargain for everything (even at upscale malls!), by taking others truths with the same trepidation, being more flexible and forgiving for shifts from facts and finding it hard to stick to the facts when confronted by others. This has gotten wiped off me to some extent because I have lived with and among Americans for a while, but it rears its head once in a while.

Anger is a no show – Indians who are angry will not readily express their anger on their facial or bodily expressions. It is bad form for an Indian to show anger and anger is only expressed under very extenuating circumstances. If an Indian is openly showing anger, know that something big is brewing. This follows from the conflict avoidance concept. Most Indians will actually show a smile while seething and possibly swearing and scheming on the inside. An American on the other hand has no problem wearing his heart on his sleeve.

220px-Ahimsa.svgAn American who does not immediately flare up when provoked will be considered a coward or to be cold, which is bad form in this country. Gandhi’s Ahimsa (non-violence) philosophy which is derived from Hinduism, is probably the cause for much of this behavior.

Bravado is commonplace – Indians are not short on bravado. They ooze machismo, devour and reciprocate it openly and are not fazed by others displaying the same signals. This confuses most outsiders. Since the brave face is often not followed through with confrontation or violent behavior, it is different from Westerners. When not directly confronted with trouble, an Indian might make a big show of their prowess or skill, but will often not follow through with the expected aggressive behavior once actually confronted. Even worse, Indian might just drop out of the conflict or competition at the first sign of a challenge.

Money and Family always mix – I am a worldly person. I like wealth, have spent most of my life chasing it and can safely say that accumulation of it occupies my thoughts all the time. However, I am ashamed of my desire of it. I consider my family to be much more important and know in my heart of hearts that wealth can only be measured in terms of what it can do for my family. To belabor the point, I accumulate the wealth, I run after it and pine for it but I do so ashamedly and only do it for my family. I do not know this for sure but I think this is due to our poor beginnings and our fear of going back to being poor. When I spend money, I am further afraid of spending too much or not saving enough for my family and for our future. This is somewhat different from wealth in the Western world where divorces are common and money is often seen to be separate within the family. Parents often manage separate bank accounts and only save in a common pile which is eyed tentatively by both parties. It might finally end up with one person or the other and often does not belong to everyone in the family. Kids might inherit wealth from their parents when they pass away, but it is not shared with the kids in the same way during their lifetime. Wealth is not collective family wealth. Financial independence of the participants might also have something to do with this perception in the Western world.

Love is Eternal – Most Indians fall in love once, deify their partner and are very enamored with not only the person, but also the feelings they associate with their loved one. Love has a certain pious tinge to it and deification of a loved one is the result. A partner is often completely crushed if and when their love is removed from their lives. Indians who fall in love and are unreciprocated, often end up either unmarried if given the option, or in loveless arranged marriages. Divorced partners often do not remarry. It is hard for an Indian to date multiple partners or to move from one love interest to the next. Even among Indian movie stars, partner jumping is much less popular than in the Western world. As India becomes more westernized, I can see this changing in some ways. What I see remaining the same is this religious sentiment associated with love and the strong desire to keep the same partner throughout ones life.

What are other idiosyncrasies of Indians do you know of?

Code, love, life, peace and dogs!