Over time I have engaged with a number of clients dealing with a staff member who is not meeting performance expectations. Ultimately, one of three things takes place. Below are typical scenarios and some observations on each.

1)  The relationship between the supervisor and supervised improves and so does performance.

Working relationships improve when the parties engage in discussion and review four critical behaviors.

  • First, both people are competent and continue to improve the skills for which they were originally hired.
  • Secondly, both are reliable – they do what they say they will do. There is also a level of sincerity that each individual exhibits toward the other – what you see is what you get, what you say is what you mean, and there are high levels of transparency and openness.
  • Feedback is freely given and received and isn’t a major hurdle to jump over every time it happens.
  • Lastly, there is a genuine sense that each individual cares for the other and puts the other person’s well-being as a high priority. If genuine concern is not present open feedback is not present and the relationship never gets through step 3! Remember, everything happens in relationship. The four steps above are essential for trust.  See The Thin Book of Trust.

2)  The situation becomes chronic and dysfunctional.

People perform because of their position in an emotional field which is set by the leader. If things become chronically dysfunctional, it is often because leaders within the organization are what Edwin Freidman called “peace mongers.” They don’t deal effectively with conflict and often avoid it, they adapt to people’s weaknesses and they often have a low threshold for dealing with their own anxieties. The fallout is that the best people in the organization – the A+ performers – suffer. Their effort and ability to be a true team player gets sabotaged. Everything happens in relationship.

3)  The staff member gets fired.

It is our nature to blame others for things that don’t go well. We have to be careful. Often blame covers a real lack of clarity around expectations, roles and the structures that support poor performance. Sometimes, however, there really is one bad apple that is spoiling the barrel. (Listen to This American Life’s Ruining it for the Rest of Us). Spoilage only happens because it is allowed. Human beings do not function solely because of their past and their nature, but because of what others will permit. As Friedman puts so succinctly, “That which is chronic is that which is tolerated.”

Good consultation helps leaders determine an essential issue.  How much do systemic shortcomings play a role in an individual’s poor performance? This may be a dicey issue to sort out as the problem is often a combination of individual and systemic operations. Everything happens in relationship. Ultimately, however, every leader has to be able “to fish or cut bait,” which is another good quote.