August 23, 2021 - Management


Employees Not Measuring Up? Do’s and Dont’s of Improving Performance

Have you ever dreaded having a conversation with an employee who wasn’t meeting performance expectations? Maybe you avoided it, hoping that their performance would improve without any intervention? If so, you are not alone.

Most managers would agree that one of their least favorite tasks is talking to an employee about poor performance. After all, it is not a comfortable conversation to have, and there is often uncertainty surrounding how the employee will respond both in the conversation, and their work moving forward. When performance conversations are ignored, success is left up to individual interpretation. This can only result in conflict because everyone has different perceptions of what success looks like.

When an employee’s failures can no longer be avoided, too many managers say in frustration, “They should have known!” And the good-intentioned employee who thinks they are knocking it out of the park is shocked when they finally find out they are barely getting by.

Addressing performance issues can be unpleasant and stressful, but it is necessary to ensure management and employees are on the same page in terms of performance expectations. To avoid this discomfort, some managers ignore the issue and hope the situation improves on its own. Avoiding these difficult discussions leads down dead-end roads including:

High Levels of Stress at Work

There are enough things in life to stress out about and discussing performance doesn’t need to be one of them. Stress is serious business. It accounts for 67% of all illness according to one study, and employees missing time to recover from illness means lost productivity for the company. Additionally, employees that deal with high levels of stress at work often experience a negative impact on mental health with increased chances of experiencing anxiety and burnout which can result in continued performance issues.

Poor Team Morale

One of the fastest ways to demotivate a team is to ignore poor performers. The rest of the team can see what’s going on and they are looking to the manager to address it. When the manager doesn’t deal with it, it can result in negative attitudes in the team members that have been working hard to meet performance goals. Bad attitudes are contagious and soon there are bigger issues to deal with than one person’s performance, which leads to the next point…

Low Performing Teams

People will perform to the standard that’s allowed by management. A manager who doesn’t hold people accountable for not meeting performance standards sends the message to all team members that it’s okay to deliver less than what’s acceptable. Team members receive this message loud and clear. After going through the demoralizing realization that management does not hold poorly performing employees accountable for their work, they will reduce their productivity accordingly.

These are dead-ends to career growth, for both the employees and manager, and can affect the organization as a whole so they must be avoided by addressing poor performance right away.

Soft Approaches to Avoid

Luckily, there is a better way to address poor work performance, but first let’s look at some things that don’t work. At some point in their career, every manager is tempted to take a softer and easier approach to address poor performance. Here are some methods that have been tried: 

Generic Emails Blasts

Avoid the temptation to send a generic email to the whole team to address an individual performance issue. The person who caused the problem often doesn’t know you are talking to them because they aren’t intentionally doing anything wrong, and they get the impression that the message is intended for another unnamed team member. Or they know the manager is talking about them but they aren’t going to change because they know they won’t be held accountable because they weren’t directly named in the message. It’s a no-win situation.

Posting Signs Around the Workplace

‘Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?’ - Five Man Electrical Band
The answer to the question “Can’t you read the sign?” is “No.” Check out the common areas in your workplace like the copier and break rooms. You might find a sign similar to “Clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here.” Or “Put all items back where you found them.” Despite the signs the problems persist.

Signs generally don’t work because no one reads them, no matter how large or bold the font, or how many exclamation points are used. Even if employees read the sign, they are often ignored due to the passive-aggressive nature of the message.

Employee Handbook Updates

Another common method some managers try is asking HR to update the employee handbook. This method is probably the least effective of the three. The reality is that most employees don’t read the handbook – sorry HR! In fact, one survey revealed that 61% of millennials did not read any or all of the employee handbook provided to them upon starting their employment. If the majority of employees aren’t likely to read the employee handbook in the first place, how can a manager reasonably expect them to read it if changes are made to it and they are given an updated copy?

Three Step Solution to Addressing Poor Work Performance

Moving on from the examples that don’t work, let’s look at a simple 3-step solution that does:
1) Set clear performance expectations;
2) Communicate the performance expectations;
3) Meet regularly to discuss performance progress.

Set Clear Expectations

You can only hold people accountable when they know what’s expected of them. When performance expectations have been clearly defined it’s easy to measure achievement and give actionable feedback to improve performance to meet expectations in the future. The key is to define the expectations in black and white terms so there is no room for ambiguity and interpretation. A manager needs to understand what is important to measure and how to measure it.

One company improved their order entry accuracy rate from 65% to 99% after they defined the expectation for completion. The low completion rate was a result of the team leaving a field on the order form blank. They weren’t lazy or negligent, they simply didn’t understand why the field needed to be completed. The manager had never defined the expectation for order entry completion and accuracy, and this issue was rectified once the expectation was clearly set and communicated to the team.

Communicate Expectations

Communicating performance expectations before there is a problem is the key to no-stress conversations later on.

Most people want to do a good job and will rise to the expectations set for them when they know what they are. It is important to not assume that people know what the expectations of their role are if you haven’t told them directly. One survey revealed that 50% of employees don’t know what is expected of them at work.

Document the performance expectations and share them with new employees right away so they are set for success from the start.

Meet Regularly to Review Performance

Meeting regularly with people individually to discuss their progress creates a culture of trust and shows that you are invested in their success at work. How often you need to meet with people varies but a good rule of thumb is to meet at least once a month. If you defined and communicated the expectations in advance, there won’t be any surprises when you tell them how they are falling short. The employee will know exactly how they’re doing. If they are falling short you can turn it into a positive coaching conversation with feedback and an action plan to help them get back on track.

When these three simple rules are followed, performance discussions are easy, transparent, and positive. The manager earns a good reputation, the team is motivated, and there is less conflict. Those are great benefits that result in successful teams and organizations that are able to fulfill their mission and purpose.

About the Author: Liz Uram is a nationally-recognized speaker, trainer, consultant, and author. She equips leaders with the tools they need to communicate like a boss so they can make a bigger impact, get better results, and motivate others to do their best. With 20 years of experience, she’s developed systems that work. Uram’s written four books packed full of strategies leaders can implement to get real results, real fast. For more information, please visit:

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