We’ve all seen it. Everyone in the team is working flat out, their eyes fixed on an impending deadline they can’t miss. Everyone that is, except one. This individual may be working just as hard as the others, or they may be actively disengaged, but their failure to meet defined deadlines is dragging down the rest of the team.
At this point, most managers call a team meeting. Rather than singling out the underachiever, they address the whole team, hammering home the importance of meeting deadlines. That’s a kick in the teeth for those who gave it everything to deliver on time – and you can bet your last dollar they know exactly who the conversation is targeting. The obvious solution is to go directly to the source and tackle the problem one-on-one. So, why isn’t that our go-to response?
Why do managers avoid one-on-one conversations?
“From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances of survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run.”
– The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
We all like to be liked. However, as leaders (and I don’t believe this is exclusive to CEOs), it is a mistake to put this natural desire above the needs of our teams.
A one-on-one conversation may be unpleasant – and potentially damaging to your personal relationship with an individual – but by putting it off, you are failing in your role as a leader. In fact, a 2010 study found that every crucial conversation managers avoid costs businesses an average of 8 hours of productivity and US$1500¹. To put it simply, we can’t always afford to be liked.
Mindful managers are good managers
There is a lot riding on your ability to manage an underperformer. Studies have shown that supportive leadership and a high quality team climate have a significant impact on individual morale, helping to protect employees from work-related stress².
Great managers are mindful of the impulse to avoid a difficult situation, but they don’t let it stop them from addressing the problem and finding a solution.
Getting to the root of the problem
“We need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates.
Poor performance and missed deadlines are caused by many issues. A lack of ability and a lack of motivation are two of the most common. However, misunderstandings and poorly defined expectations are just as likely.
Regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of SMART goals. Sustainable, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound, these objectives make it clear to an individual what is expected and how they can achieve it. If employees are missing deadlines because of a lack of skills, poor organisation, or unclear expectations, then setting SMART goals is a great way to identify and address the problem.
How to deliver constructive feedback
One-on-one conversations can be stressful, particularly if an individual knows they are failing to meet expectations. I have addressed the issue of reducing stress in feedback conversations before, here are the key takeaways:
- Include emotions: Linking feedback to your emotions increases its impact. ‘When you do x, I feel y.’
- Reduce the threat: Individuals who are concerned about job security, your personal opinion, and their status can feel threatened. Make sure feedback conversations are two-sided and plan ahead to reduce these threats. Give the individual a chance to evaluate their own performance and devise a solution together.
- Be fair: An employee who consistently underperforms can be frustrating, but it is important to exclude your personal opinions from feedback conversations. Base your comments on facts rather than assumptions so individuals can see that your assessment is fair and unbiased.
- Focus on the future: Yesterday’s missed deadline is in the past. Keep performance conversations forward-focused and ensure individuals have the tools and support they need to deliver on their next objective.
The role of performance management
All employees need a sense of purpose, and performance management is key to aligning individuals with organisational goals. Clear direction at every level increases creativity, organisational performance, and individual engagement.
Meeting one-on-one with team members gives them a chance to be heard. This means you can stay abreast of any potential performance issues at an individual and team level, and address them before deadlines are missed.
That said, you can have too much of a good thing. Those of you who caught my article on the science of feedback will know that monthly feedback strikes the right balance between overloading and underwhelming employees. In fact, detailed monthly feedback on areas of weakness was shown to improve individual performance by as much as 46% (if you missed that article, now is the perfect time to check it out).
To Sum Up…
Individuals who consistently miss deadlines are detrimental to the health of your team and organisational growth. The only solution for managers is to address the problem head on. If we want to avoid cynicism within the team, reductions in individual morale, increases in employee turnover, and reduced organisational performance, we need to overcome our personal distaste for difficult conversations and provide employees with the feedback they need to improve.
¹Maxfield, B., 2010. Cost of conflict: why science is killing your bottom line. VitalSmarts
²Deakin University, 2016. A manager’s role in the risk management of workplace stress. Deakin University