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June - 2007 - issue > People Manager
Managing Marginal Performers
C Mahalingam (Mali)
Friday, June 1, 2007
Years ago, I was invited to address a group of senior managers heading various departments for a session on Performance Management. This was for a Public Sector corporation, at their Management Development Center in Mumbai.

During the course of my interactive session, I asked them two questions: How many of them believed that getting a good performance was an issue in their company? Almost all of them raised their hands stating it indeed was an issue. Then I asked the second question: How many of them believed that it was their issue? More than half of the hands went down in no time. Interesting discussions followed as to why many of them thought it was someone else’s problem to address non-performance.

This is not uncommon. In fact, it is rather widespread in our organizations that managers responsible for ensuring top notch performance often ignore pockets of non performance until either it is too late or some higher up pulls up the manager to fix it.

Why is there a laxity in managing marginal or non-performance?
In my experience, I have observed that the following could be attributed as reasons for many people managers’ hesitation to manage marginal or non-

Fear: This takes many shapes. Firstly, the fear of losing the employee, which is often combined with a fear that getting a replacement is going to be difficult. Some large firms have layers and layers of approvals before even a backfill hiring can be done. Secondly, fear of communicating the bad news, emanating from lack of self confidence and not having the know-how to handle the reaction.

Hope: Takes many shapes again. Firstly, the hope that the performance problem will disappear on its own and one need not strain the relationship with the concerned employee. Secondly, hope that the employee can be transferred, thus having no requirement to address the unpleasant problem of dealing with it. This does not solve the problem, but only transfers the problem from one team to another.

Belief: That the problem truly belongs to another—probably the manager’s manager or departmental head; worse still, believing that the problem belongs to HR and they should resolve this.

Concern: Often a misplaced one at that because concern for the employee should reflect in terms of helping the problematic employee come to terms with performance issues and getting out of it, rather than protecting them to continue to be sloppy.

Collective Mediocrity sets in as Organization Culture:
If a high performance culture has to become a reality, then ‘Consequence Management’ should be handled well across management levels in the organizations.
Consequence Management has two parts, like two sides of the same coin. Fundamentally, it is holistic performance management. It calls for rewarding superior performers with superior recognition and rewards, which is one side of the equation. The invaluable second side of the coin is learning to do a good job of dealing with poor performers. Postponing this or avoiding this is disastrous for the organization as well as the career of the people manager himself. Those managers that cannot confront a performance issue at work and manage-up or manage-out a marginal performer will soon cease to be candidates for higher opportunities themselves.

The cost of people managers’ unwilling or unability to handle non-performers is too huge on the organizations and the immediate teams they are managing. It is frustrating for the well performing employees that they are stretched to make up for the non-performers. Non-performers bring down the level of collective performance of the team and the organization eventually, even if it is gradual. Soon collective mediocrity sets in as the organization’s culture.

Good People Leave: Gresham’s Law of People Management
If you are a student of economics, you would have known the “Gresham’s Law”. In monetary theory, this law refers to the phenomenon whereby bad currency drives good currency out of circulation. In people management, I often apply this law and say “bad performers, if unchecked, will drive good performers out!” Experienced managers know this as real. Good employees leave an organization when they do not find managers discriminating and removing bad or marginal performers.

Manager Training, a Must:
Organizations invest a huge amount of money in organizing various training programs for managers. It will do them a lot of good if they made ‘performance management’ training a mandatory module for all the People Managers. Such training should include a module on managing marginal performers in detail giving managers the necessary know-how and tools for tackling performance issues and non-performers. It should cover a step by step process for doing it well.

Some Tips for training managers:
* Managers must be helped to differentiate between “performance issues” and “discipline issues”. They both call for different sets of actions. Discipline issues are non negotiable and often call for immediate actions that include discharge from service
*Managers should be helped to recognize the symptoms of poor performance as they begin to manifest, rather than wait to let these symptoms become real issues.
*Performance problems are best addressed as manifestations of symptoms arise and performance begins to slide from expected lines. Bridging the performance gaps is much easier when the gap is small and not wide.
*Managers must be helped to draft robust Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) that clearly indicate (a) performance issues as observed; (b) areas of improvements; and (c) why improvement has to be marked and sustained. PIPs should also indicate the periodicity of the review, consequences of non-improvement and support actions that the manager will initiate. In good organizations, the PIPs are not part of legitimizing a discharge or dismissal and a legal cover-up process, but a mechanism by which a Manager is called upon to genuinely help an employee shape up by providing direct and extra managerial attention.
*Reviewing the performance of an employee on PIP and ensuring all organizational support is provided (training, coaching and the likes)

In the Final Analysis:
Dealing with marginal performers is as much a key deliverable for people managers as standing there and giving out recognition to star performers. For obvious reasons, many managers shun the difficult part and try to wish away the key responsibility. Organizations, HR leaders and senior managers must play a key role in ensuring that this expectation is clearly articulated and measured when it comes to choosing People Managers for the job.

The author is Sr.VP-HR with Symphony Services Corporation. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com

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