Performance Manage People

by Paula Newton

Recognising poor performance

Recognising poor performance may seem like a simple thing to do, yet there are some pitfalls that trap the unwary manager.

To aim is not enough, you must hit!

German proverb

Poor performance could be defined as not meeting the objectives and targets laid out. There may be many reasons for this, including faulty targets, but the fundamental point is that first you must have targets in order to evaluate performance, and then consider what to do about it.

If there is a very specific target, it is easy to recognise whether it has been achieved or not. However, in many cases things are not so clear cut and you will be relying on other symptoms, such as

  • Carelessness
  • Absenteeism/bad time keeping
  • Emotional – temperamental/impatient/rude – behaviour
  • Under delivery/late delivery
  • Appearing unmotivated
  • Avoiding you/avoiding discussions about objectives
  • Complaining/deflecting problems onto others.

If you come to the conclusion that someone is performing poorly, the very first thing to do is evaluate why you think so.

It is much more difficult to measure non-performance than performance. Performance stands out like a ton of diamonds. Non-performance can almost always be explained away.

Harold S Geneen

Your perceptions

It is critical that you understand why you think a person is performing poorly and whether that perception is grounded in reality or not. Suppose a colleague said something to you that gave you the feeling that a member of your team was not up to standard...

  • Was their comment based on any depth of understanding of what the team member does?
  • Was the person projecting their personal standards onto your team?

Or perhaps your feeling is based on your own values: for example, just because you choose to work through your lunch break to finish a task, there’s no reason why your employee should have to do the same.

Personal biases

Sometimes we are biased without even realising it. This can impact upon how we perceive staff performance. Such prejudices can be quite powerful, so it is important as a manager to recognise, understand and counteract them.

Sometimes, of course, we may be blissfully unaware of our personal biases – we just think that we’re right, without even realising that not everyone shares our opinion. It may help to ask a trusted colleague or friend, your partner or even, if you are lucky enough to have access to them, your own or someone else’s teenage children (these are guaranteed to give you some brutally direct and refreshing opinions).

Similarities to us

Our tendency is to like people who are similar to us. Just because a person is different from you and just because they carry out a task in a different way, this does not make them a poor performer. Learn to appreciate differences and what others bring to the team that someone with your unique skills cannot. Build on people’s skills, rather than expecting them to perform in exactly the same way as you. Value diversity.

Past events

Something that happened in the past may have caused you to be biased against someone. Perhaps they behaved in a certain way in the past for a particular set of reasons. Be very careful about how you let past behaviour influence your thoughts and perceptions in the present.


No-one likes to think of themselves as being prejudiced, but sometimes we are. We are, of course, aware of overt racial, sexual and religious prejudice, but this does not always prevent people from holding strong views about a whole range of things, including background (was their upbringing more or less privileged than yours; do ‘all northerners’ or ‘all southerners’ behave in a certain way?), weight (‘should’ they lose some?), smoking (‘should’ they give up?), religion (not just Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew, but ‘born again’ versus Catholic versus agnostic versus atheist, for example) and, of course, age-related issues.

You may have an opinion about someone that is grounded in a prejudice, rather than reality. Beware of making assumptions about people based on prejudices, generalisations or past experience. Don’t put people into boxes – instead, consider each person’s current performance in an individual manner.


This is closely related to history. If a person completed one task well, it does not mean that they always complete tasks well. Likewise, if a person carried out one task badly, it does not follow that everything they do from then onwards is ‘bad’. Avoid generalising about people based on a one-off performance. This is called the halo effect or horns effect. A person can change their performance – it is not inevitable that they will perform poorly at something because they have done so on several previous occasions – especially if a good programme of coaching and feedback has been adopted.

What is going well?

It is also worth considering what the person is doing well, because performance management is not just about what a person is doing that indicates poor performance. Ask what the person is doing that indicates good performance and get a balance. It may well be that they contribute hugely in one area and, moreover, that this contribution would be hampered by correction in another area that may not be so important.

Early warning system

Through all of this, simply getting to know your team better by holding regular one-to-one meetings to discuss how things are progressing, plus giving feedback and coaching, can go a long way towards avoiding problems in the first place.

We tend to sense quite accurately when someone close to us is under stress, or worried or whatever. A better relationship will attune you to your staff in a way which will increase the accuracy of your notions about when poor performance is about to occur. It improves the early warning system for poor performance.


If you are worried about staff performance or conduct, you may be tempted to keep a close eye on your employees. But be aware that there are limits to what you can monitor and how.

Keeping tabs on staff activity is so easy with discreet CCTV, internet logging software and other modern technologies that the law errs strongly towards protecting privacy at work. If you do not have a good reason to be watching your staff with these methods, you are likely to be breaking the law.

On the other hand, The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) allows you to gather information about staff in order to ensure that they are complying with company policy or with the law. For example, if you have a clear policy about making personal phone calls at work, you may be entitled to monitor phone use.

The best way to stay on the right side of the law is to be clear with your staff about what you intend to monitor, and under what circumstances. Also be clear as to why the policy is in place so that staff know that there is a good business reason behind the policy.

Only when it is reasonable to conclude that your business is at risk can you carry out discreet surveillance, or carry out intrusive monitoring such a bag searches. Of course, this must be weighed up against the atmosphere of distrust that will be created.