When Empowering Others Doesn’t Work
I wrote an article on how empowering others is crucial to your success as a manager. Nevertheless, there are times when a manager needs to choose a different management style – one some of his subordinates might perceive as micromanagement.
As an HR manager, I have had managers coming to me with requests to prepare documentation for notices to underperformers quite often. I recall one of them, Jack, telling me he needed to cancel the contract with Janette as she had been underperforming constantly. I asked Jack what documentation he had about Janette’s underperformance and he looked at me surprised: “What documentation?”
“Have you and Janette put any performance goals on paper together?” I asked. “No!” he said. I explained to Jack that there are two reasons to do that. First, it is a legal must in many countries to have the proper documentation in place before you let somebody go. More importantly, writing down your expectations in the form of goals helps the underperformer understand better what success looks like and allows you to accurately track improvement.
The company we worked for had a performance management process in place with guidelines on how to set goals and review results. The special part of it, the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), was there to help both managers and underperformers track improvement as well as to serve as documentation in case of a notice for underperformance.
At the time Jack wrote down a Performance Improvement Plan for Janette, he had little hope for her improvement, and he was actually disappointed that he was unable to let her go immediately. He wanted to have his problem solved and must have felt I was bothering him with some silly bureaucratic paperwork.
However, throughout this process, I believe Jack learned two valuable lessons:
As Janette was hired 4 months before her PIP, Jack missed the opportunity to monitor her performance effectively in a probation period that is 3 month long in the Czech Republic. If she did not improve during this time he could have let her go without stating any reason in the notice, saving time spent on the PIP.
Jack failed at Janette’s onboarding. After she was hired as a junior team member, Janette was given a buddy on Jack’s team who should have walked her through her onboarding. Jack devoted too little time meeting her, doing it only twice in a month for 30 minutes, and the buddy failed in setting Janette up for success.
Jack realized that it might not have been fair to let Janette go without giving her a chance to improve. On his next one-on-one with Janette, he was truthful in his effort to help her succeed. He not only explained to her where the problem was with her performance, which he had already done before, but he also had a paper with goals for her written down. He probed what might help her to perform better.
Janette realized that the situation was serious and she could be let go, but she also understood what she needed to do to stay with the company. This might not have helped her to improve if Jack only saw the PIP process as the means to let her go. At the end of their meeting, for the first time, Jack not only offered support, but also showed interest in what she liked and disliked about the job and the company. Janette told me years later that this was the first time she felt Jack really cared about her.
Jack and Janette spent the next month working very closely together, and Jack had one-on-ones with Janette almost every other day to review how she was doing, giving her feedback and offering support. Was it time-consuming? Was it uncomfortable? Yes, it was! But was it worth it? Yes!
At the end of the next month, Janette improved and Jack decided he want her on his team. From an underperformer who needed “hand-holding” some might call micromanaging, Janette slowly became a valuable member of Jack’s team who was able to work independently.
The story of Janette and Jack had a happy ending. Unfortunately, it happens often that people on the PIP fail to improve because managers use the PIP as the last resort in situations where normal verbal feedback and coaching is not working. In these cases, no matter how much no matter how much a manager tries to help a team member succeed, the individual’s performance rarely advances.
When you decide to use the PIP process with frequent tracking and reviewing, go through it with the intention of helping the underperformer succeed and not simply to document letting them go. Still, consult your HR beforehand to make sure you can use the documentation later in case the underperformer doesn’t improve. In discussion over the PIP, be clear about the consequences.
The best way to prevent underperformance on your team is to have people working from their “sweet spot” as much as possible. To do that, make sure you have a good selection process during hiring, efficient onboarding and efficient one-on-ones, and you do your best to match the needs of your organization with the needs of your team members.
If you want to improve your regular one-on-ones, download my One-on-one Accelerator. It will help you define gaps you want to fill in and take the first steps in achieving the desired results in managing your team.