The true test of leadership comes when team members are underperforming. How you approach the underperformer may make all the difference for your organization.

by Tom Wilk
February 23, 2022

This is a follow-up to my friend Ben Brennan’s article for HDI in November 2021. Ben defined courage, the opposite of courage, and why courage is important. Here I want to expand on what Ben said and write about how courage is hard, but necessary when working with people who have performance challenges.

As Ben stated, being a leader is not an easy career choice, and can be difficult when faced with issues that require us to make hard decisions. This could not be truer than when dealing with performance issues. The question is, how do you choose to handle these situations?

The Ostrich

Over the course of my career, I have seen this method of performance management the most.

While it is a myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when in danger, they do tend to flop on the ground and remain still, attempting to blend into their environment. Many leaders tend to take this approach when faced with adversity when dealing with performance issues.

In a recent coaching session, a client of mine talked about having an employee who would go to the breakroom several times a day, often for thirty to sixty minutes at a time. The break room was next to the CIO’s office, and the CIO could see this person going in and out every day. The CIO started documenting these occurrences and brought it up to the offender’s manager.

My client, the manager, worried that the CIO’s concerns would hold his employee back from advancing in their career. While the employee had the technical skills needed to advance, my client couldn’t promote them because they are seen as lazy and not interested in their job.

I asked my client why he thought his employee went to the breakroom so often. He said, “I have no idea, but it doesn't look good for him or me.” So I continued by asking my client what he has done so far. “Well other than talk to my CIO about it, nothing.”

My client does not have the courage to confront his employee about the situation. This is not only detrimental to the employee, but also to his manager. The employee will most likely not understand why he’s not being promoted because his leaders do not have the courage to talk to him about the issue. The manager will also be impacted because he will be seen as an ineffective leader.

Are you an Ostrich? If you are, you’ll need to work really hard at being able to talk to the person about their performance issues. Start by finding out who they are, what they like, and what they don’t like. Having these conversations with them may help you find what is causing their struggle. Next you will need to discuss it with them.

The Ogre

To the opposite extreme, I have encountered Ogres in leadership. These are leaders who feed on those who do not perform well. They eat them up and spit them out, usually by firing them, demoting them, or pawning them off on some other unsuspecting leader.

Like the Ostrich, the Ogre does not bother to find out the reason for a person’s performance issues. They simply want results, and this person is standing in the way of that happening. An Ogre may find a quick way out by putting the person on a performance probation plan, letting HR know why this person needs to be fired. They may even do everyone a disservice by pushing the underperformer on someone else.

Sometimes the Ogre is seen by the team as leadership by fear, and the specter of this fear can start impacting even the best people in the group. This tactic can make it hard for a company or a team to recruit people. No one wants to work for an Ogre, so they won’t apply for positions under that leader or recommend people. If the so-called underperforming team members aren’t being fired outright, they are most likely finding other positions to get away from the Ogre.

If you’re an Ogre, you may need to really work on yourself first. Try to be observant in your actions when dealing with people you feel are struggling. Are you irritable around them or short tempered with them? It may help to talk to a peer or get coaching to help you break this style.

For Ogres, I would recommend some of the same tactics as the Ostrich - get to know what makes your team members tick - when dealing with struggling employees. However, you will need to be careful in your delivery. If you go on the attack mode when talking to this person, they will shut down or explode.

The Elephant

In performance management, I believe a great leader can best model themselves after the Elephant - be highly empathetic, share strong social bonds, and make the most out of their environment.

When working with people struggling to perform their jobs, you need to be empathetic. Work with the person who is struggling, don’t ignore the problem, and don’t be so quick to write them off without looking into the issue.

Most of us in IT are problem solvers; we need to find the root cause of an issue. The same holds true for a leader. When working with people who have performance issues, you need to find the root cause of their struggle. It may be personal, it may be professional, but either way it is affecting their performance on your team. Use your social bond with them to help you understand where they are, who they are, and what they want to be.

Call to Action

As Ben said in his article, being a leader is hard and takes courage. This gets even harder when working with performance issues. I challenge you as a leader to work on being that courageous leader who will help a struggling employee understand the issue and decide to become better, or at least decide on their own accord to move on from the organization.

Tom Wilk is a Performance Management & IT Thought Leader, Mentor and Coach, and Public Speaker & Live Stream host.

Tag(s): supportworld, leadership, best practice

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