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Performance Improvement Guidelines for Poor Performers

Sunday, Apr 11, 2010

Escaping Poor Performance

Poor performance is not a rare occurrence but a rather pervasive phenomenon. Despite being undesirable from both individual and organizational perspective, it does happen and quite often too. Unfortunately, both the individuals, the non-performers and organizations, the systems that harbour poor performers, tend to look the other way rather than taking it head on. The most typical response to poor performance or alleged poor performance is resignation or termination. Both are convenient escape routes to a curable problem. The consequence of this attitude is painfully costly for businesses and individuals alike. Above all, this makes the problem persist much longer, thereby enhancing and spreading the risk of failure.

The Cost of Bad Performance

Have you ever been labeled as a bad performer? Have you ever felt being a bad performer or an inefficient or ineffective professional? Either way, the resulting emotions are intense, disturbing and often long lasting. From the individual's perspective, the consequence of real or perceived poor performance may include:

Obviously, the cost of poor performance is unacceptably high.

The Approach or Avoid Dilemma

You have two basic alternatives if you are confronted as a low performer:

  1. Take the easy way out
  2. Face the challenge head on

If you want to take it easy, you may choose to fly instead of fight i.e. adopt a "run the hell out of here" kind of a response. If that is the case then start looking for another job right away, resign and switch as soon as you find a good-enough opportunity - not necessarily a great one. The advantage of this approach is that it provides you with an "immediate relief" - but for how long? Yes, how long? The most probable outcome of this approach is that you may take your incompetence, whether perceived or real, to the next organization and thereby get haunted by the same problem again and again. Being an ostrich doesn't really solve anything. Does it?

So, are you ready for a fight? Don't be surprised, but much of this fight is to be fought within yourself, and not against the organization that confronted you as a non-performer. If you really want to uproot the problem and settle it for once and for all, then this may be the only viable course available. And even better, walking on this path would equip you with a toolkit to deal with many other challenges that you may face in life. And it may well prevent many of the issues from occurring in future.

The Basic Toolkit of Self-improvement

Human performance is a complex subject and depends on a series of factors. There are two fundamental areas of performance intervention - the organization and the individual. Though organizations can play a leading role in dealing with performance issues, the focus of this article is on the individual. Since many organizations play a minimal or no role in this regard (other than taking the escape route), individuals often have to take the initiative. After all, it's their career and life that is at stake. So why not take charge of your own career and steer it yourself?

The basic ingredients required to improve one's own performance include: knowledge, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, habits and finally, actions. If you want to move ahead in life and have yourself reclassified from a very low to high performer, you have to bring about changes in the above cited areas. The following guidelines for self-improvement are based on the above factors and on the assumption that you are a low performer (whether you know it or not) who is consistently failing to meet business requirements. It is important to note that these guidelines are based on experience and observation about the psychology and behaviour of poor performers and thus may not be equally applicable to good or moderate performers, though some of the advice may be equally or partially relevant in either case.

The Backdrop

You have been approached by Human Resources and your supervisor(s) and told that the management is extremely displeased about the quality of your work and that you have been almost consistently failing to perform and meet the expectations. The tone, body language and the content of the conversation explains the gravity of the matter and makes it very clear that it's a do-or-die situation. You strongly disagree with much of the assertion and feel angry and extremely frustrated. In fact, you view yourself as a top performer who has worked real hard and were expecting a matching reward from your employer, when all of a sudden you hear about being ranked among the bottom of the lot. You give references of some of your supervisors, team leads, senior professionals and peers to challenge and thwart the "allegation", but unfortunately, hardly anyone tends to take your side. There seems to be a 180 degree difference between your perspective and the perception of your superiors. You shake your head and exit from the heated debate with complete disbelief.

The Guidelines

  1. Silence is gold - Stop talking (arguing) and start listening. Take genuine interest in what people have to say about your performance. What they say may provide valuable insight to the problem.
  2. Respond but do not react - Most often when people face the above cited scenario, they react strongly and immediately. This complicates the matters instead of offering any remedy. A better way to deal with this emotionally charged situation is to check your emotions during the discussion, find yourself a moment and place of solitude, cool down, relax and try to think as objectively as possible. Try to keep the emotional temperature as low as possible.
  3. Obtain concrete feedback - It is common to be provided with a very broad and generic statement of the problem. Ask your supervisor, and peers where applicable, to provide specific examples of failure and concrete feedback about specific areas of improvement. For example, statements like "you are very inefficient" are not good enough for improvement. Inquire examples from the past that prove your inefficiency. Also inquire about specific elements of inefficiency. For example, if you are being marked as an inefficient worker, it is more helpful to know that:

    • You are too slow and often miss deadlines because of that.
    • You consume or waste significantly more material or resources than a typical worker.
    • You often waste time in unproductive activities and the amount of work accomplished by your peers in a day is much greater than your output.
    • During the last project, you took 4 weeks to write the feasibility report, whereas on a similar project, Maryam, your peer, took just 5 working days to complete the task.

      Remember, most managers are poor at providing concrete feedback. But since there is no real hope of improvement without it, you must take ownership of this task and work hard to open them up and let them express specific weaknesses and episodes of failure. Without clear understanding of the gap and desired direction, you would be as good as a blind man, and that too, without the white cane.

  4. Stop conceiving critics as your enemies - Each critic bears a torch that highlights some pits that lie before you - switch off the torch and you may end up falling in one of the pits.
  5. Feedback is not criticism - Performance feedback whether implicit or explicit, is like a rear-view mirror. If you do not often look into it, chances are that you would crash sooner or later. It is more productive to view feedback as a coaching and development tool rather than criticism. Performance feedback is thus a critical opportunity for development and career advancement. By taking it personally or perceiving it as a threat you would marginalize your prospects for improvement.
  6. Feedback is all around you, so don't wait - People often wait for the year end (annual appraisal) to formally learn about the management view of their performance. This wait-state is completely unnecessary. Performance feedback is a continuous phenomenon. We continuously receive cues and implicit messages about our performance from the environment on a regular basis. Those who process and act on this valuable information tend to keep themselves on the right path throughout the performance period. Those who ignore it, often experience a shocking revelation at the end of the year. It's not that the management kept them in dark - but in fact they themselves looked the other way and did not take note of it as if it was not important.

    These cues and messages include:

    • Words, tone, gestures and body language of the supervisors, peers etc. soon after receiving and reviewing your work output.
    • Tone and attitude of your supervisors and peers etc. relative to your peers. For example, my manager tends to show more respect to most of my team mates, exchanges smiles with them more often, and also tends to ignore their mistakes. On the other hand, he looks down on me, speaks with me with a relatively harsh voice, spends more time critically analyzing my work as if trying to find faults, and being most unforgiving with my mistakes.
    • Number of revisions and rework required of your work. If your supervisor frequently sends back your work for amendments, enhancements, it's a crystal clear signal that he's not satisfied with your work.
    • Words of appreciation and encouragement received relative to your peers, both through formal and informal channels.
    • Amount of supervision - managers tend to leave good performers unattended or administer limited supervision. They spend much more time supervising, checking, controlling, correcting and guiding the lower performers.
    • The level of responsibility or challenging work assigned. Managers tend to assign simple, routine work to low performers and shift most of the responsibilities and challenging work to great performers. This lowers the probability of failure and enhances the efficiency of their team or section.
    • Flow of rewards - if you are not getting the reward that you think you deserve, and if you see people around, getting more rewards than they deserve in your opinion, then take it as an early warning of a performance problem. You need to perform a reality check because rewards typically flow towards higher performance and the value of rewards is generally proportional to the level of performance.
  7. The level of performance issue is directly proportional to the gap of perception - The wider the gap, the greater the problem. Your self-rating and the supervisor's evaluation of your performance should not be significantly different. When the gap is too wide, it's time to obtain feedback and do some self-analysis. A wider gap usually identifies lack of self-awareness and that you are probably moving in the wrong direction. While the views of your manager and your own perception about your own work would hardly ever match, yet it's extremely important to keep the difference as small as possible. For example, if you consider yourself a top performer, and your manager rates you as a poor performer (believe me this is not uncommon) it's time to calibrate. Just like the dashboard readings of your car - if you think the tank is emptying whereas your dashboard shows your tank as full, you are heading towards a failure. The system warrants an immediate repair.
  8. Don't take it personally - It's important to remember that performance appraisal is about evaluation of work output and not the weighing of the individual himself. Work performance is mostly an impersonal business. Do not perceive an attack on your performance (work) an attack on you. You and your work are two separate entities.
  9. Maintain your cool and peace of mind - Some people experience an exaggerated level of stress upon getting a negative performance feedback. They feel threatened to unjustified proportions. Do not take negative feedback as "the end of the world". If you take feedback so negatively and intensely, chances are that you would react with strong negative emotions followed by equally negative thoughts, inappropriate and self-destructive actions. Negative and intense emotions lock the mind and inhibit creative thinking and problem solving. A negatively charged psychological state would make you more vulnerable and inapt to deal with the challenge. Intensely negative emotions also make you loose vital energy. So work hard to maintain a positive state of mind and conserve energy to fight the real problem.
  10. Say cheese - Smile is considered to be an important characteristic of great leadership. Smile is also considered to be contagious which helps fill the environment with positive energy. With so much negative energy surrounding the performance context, smiling more often would help you restore your emotional balance and rebuild or strengthen social relationships. Remember, humans are programmed to be attracted towards a smile or positive mental state and retracted from a frown or a negative mental state. Since developing social bonds at work is an important factor of professional success, smiling more often than usual could prove to be an effective measure towards that end.
  11. Find a coach - Some people find it hard to fight alone. If that's the case, find yourself a mentor to guide you through the process. That individual however should preferably be a higher performer or a mature colleague capable of giving sound advice and guidance. Above all, he/she must be a positive thinker.
  12. Find a partner and set mutual goals - If you know someone with similar context or goals, it may prove more effective to have him on board and set shared goals. That way you would keep helping and pushing each other, and share thoughts and ideas which could significantly enhance your ability to cope with the issue. Having shared goals also creates an atmosphere of competition which creates positive tension in the air and adds to the overall motivation for goal attainment.
  13. Stay miles away from negative minds - If you do not want to ruin your career, stay miles away from negative thinkers. They'll drain your energy and make you see every prospect and opportunity with doubt and every problem as either insurmountable or a conspiracy. Better say goodbye to such friends and try establishing new bonds.
  14. Know thyself - As a manager it is critical to be knowledgeable about your resources - amount, type, quality, risks etc. Without this knowledge and understanding even the greatest plan can miserably fail. The greatest asset of an individual is his mind, body and soul. Every individual has unique qualities, weaknesses and strengths. Many people however lack basic self-awareness. If you are new to the domain of self-awareness and self-development, it's high time to initiate the voyage of self-discovery and explore yourself in-depth. The insight about yourself would help you appreciate some of your problems more deeply. It will enable you to tap on your key strengths and avoid failures by alerting you about your weaknesses in advance. While self-awareness is a wide ocean, the critical starting point is to study topics like personality, attitude, and emotions.
  15. Avoid the fire - Negative feelings and thoughts are like a fire that keeps growing till it devastates the whole environment. The best time to put out the fire is as it begins. The train of negative thoughts and emotions if unchecked can soon become out of control. A negative thought is like fire and negative emotion like fuel. Each negative thought triggers a new yet equally negative thought. And an intense negative emotion fuels the train of thoughts. The greatest victim in the process is logic and sense of reasoning.
  16. Commit to deliver - One of the most striking qualities of successful individuals is that they think twice before making a commitment but once committed, they deliver - almost invariably. Analyze your behavioural pattern with regard to commitment. Do you often fail to meet commitments? If yes then chances are that you either don't consider commitment as a big deal (after all, promises are made to be broken) or you tend to take refuge in the "reasons" that led to your failure. If that's the case, then in any situation, you would always find plentiful excuses of not delivering. Howsoever logical your reasons may be, each failure would lower your reliability index, and in due course, shake the confidence of your manager. How can there be any meaningful relationship without trust? And lack of commitment shakes the very foundation of trust.
  17. Find solutions not problems - Organizations hire individuals to find solutions not problems. Yet many individuals spend enormous time and energy finding and discussing problems and obstacles that hinder their performance. It's a pathetic strategy to cover up failure which hardly ever works. Expending half that effort in searching for a possible solution could significantly enhance the probability of success. And it is a learning experience that builds your capacity. If you fail now, you would probably succeed the next time in solving a similar problem. But if you never try, you would never grow. Always whining about problems marks you as a hopeless and unwanted team member. If you are that type, no manager would dare assign you on any challenging assignment.
  18. Time to kill or time to act? - Time is one of the most precious resources. Unlike other resources however, it is irrecoverable. You can buy back most resources, but not time. If you aim at high performance then you must appreciate the value of time. Observe your attitude and behaviour with respect to time. Do you treat time as a professional resource, leisure or a mere nuisance?

    Successful individuals and high performers view time as a resource and tend to demonstrate a sense of urgency in their work routine. They make the best use of time, meet deadlines, avoid distractors and timewasters. Top performers use there "free time" in planning, self-assessment, learning, and improving processes, habits and overall approach to work.

    Many low performers tend to view time as a mere nuisance. They are often observed looking impatiently at their watch as if it were too slow. Their primary focus is not at work but at the time that spans after work - leisure. For them, time is a burden - probably more burdensome than work itself. Another group of individuals is regularly seen engaged in unproductive and non-work related activities (e.g. checking personal emails, chatting, etc.). They are constantly observed in stretching their time-off (break times etc.) and a go-slow behaviour at whatever they do.

    So, are you a time killer or a time utilizer?

  19. Replace your lens - A man is diagnosed with a terminal disease and dies much earlier than anticipated. Another man, faced with the same situation, asserts to fight disease. With intense hope, positive thought and conviction he makes full recovery to the utter surprise of the doctors. This is not fairy tale but a fairly common spectacle. Two individuals, inflicted with equal challenge respond differently, yielding a diametrically different consequence. That's attitude. You have two basic choices to look at anything - positive or negative. A negative attitude about anything makes it look dark, hopeless and unfavourable. Positive attitude is full of hope, focuses on the silver lining and tends to find opportunity in almost any circumstance. The difference is beautifully outlined in the Russian proverb: a hammer shatters glass but forges steel.

    If your life is marred with doubt, negativity and hopelessness throw away your lens and pick a brighter, more colourful lens. Life is not meant to be experienced in shades of grey - start enjoying life with full spectrum of colours.

  20. Earn and demand responsibility - All else equal, responsibility flows from an individual with lower reliability and competence to an individual with higher reliability and competence. And since rewards follow responsibility, shouldering responsibility makes good economic sense. Also, individuals with higher responsibility tend to grow faster. Thus responsibility is not a mere burden but a development tool as well. If you are genuinely interested to advance your career, aspire to assume more responsibility and enhance your readiness for higher challenges. Investigate the knowledge and skills required to deliver the higher order tasks and prepare to equip yourself with desired competencies. In the meanwhile demonstrate your eagerness for enhanced work and responsibility to your superiors through words and actions. Never be the one who escapes responsibility, because the one who does actually ends up escaping opportunities and life prospects.
  21. Don't feel shy to seek help - But never ask the same question or solution again. And try to spread what you get - help others.
  22. Change your company - A man is known by the company he keeps. Review what kind of people you get along with. If most of them are mediocre performers, then that is an important influence that you carry in your daily routine. Try to diversify your group and add at least a few who are unquestionably brighter, or better than you in any way. Humans are programmed to learn through social interaction at both conscious and subconscious level. It is an effortless learning experience. People are an integral component of our environment. And environment in itself is one of the most fundamental influences on our thought and behaviour. A meaningful change in the environment can help you bring about the desired change in your work life.
  23. Avoid the "I know syndrome" - You don't know everything - no one does - so don't pretend you do. The assumption that "I know everything" (or almost everything) hampers further learning. It makes you a bad listener and poor observer. Such an attitude practically shuts down the major sources of input and self-growth. It is a catastrophic attitude with dire social implications as well. No one wants to be around an individual who is perpetually found in a "shut up" mode.
  24. If you are not Einstein, don't feel ashamed - Do the best you can and keep learning to the extent possible - accept and love yourself for whatever you are - never curse yourself
  25. Plan, execute, monitor, review and improve - Never try to address all major issues in one go. That does not work. Focus is the key. Identify a few major action items, prioritize and select a few to begin with. Think and plan out a strategy to deal with the issues and remember not to be shy in seeking help if so required. Set concrete and measurable goals. As you plan do not forget to set start and end date of your to dos. Do not overdo planning as it may be counterproductive. Too much thinking hampers action. There has to be a balance between planning and action. After basic planning, commit to what you have decided and do not get distracted by unfavourable events or setbacks. An important measure of commitment is your ability and willingness to sacrifice for the goal (e.g. time, vacation, favourite TV show, socializing with friends etc.). You must commit from the heart. Keep monitoring your progress over time instead of blindly working on the goal. Review and make any desired adjustments in the original plan if required. Continuous monitoring and review would ensure early detection of a problem or deviation from the plan and help you meet your goal within reasonable time frame and with minimal loss of effort.
  26. No shortcuts please - Great success or significant improvement demands patience and may not be taken as a joyride. It is extremely important to assess the value of your possible achievement. How important is the goal to you? What difference would it make in your life? How much better would things be for you? How much happier and satisfied would you feel? How much stress and nuisance would it alleviate? If the answer is "very much", then a disciplined, patient and persistent endeavour makes perfect sense and you should be mentally prepared for the bumps along the road and face them with a smile. If the answer is "not much", then may be it is not worth the effort. Better find something more worthwhile to work on.
  27. Hard work is not enough - How you work is equally important as how much. In professional life there are a few keywords that are worth some attention and effort. These are: process, method, approach, tools and technology - you may be working hard but not smart. Working smart does not necessarily mean working intelligently or ingeniously. It just means the "right way". Invest in learning and applying more about relevant processes, methods, tools and technologies and see the difference. At times it makes one hell of a difference.

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"It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision"

[Helen Keller]