I once had a bright, motivated new employee with his whole future ahead of him. But strangely, he was struggling with one of his most basic—and important—responsibilities. My team was running a corporate university that we’d built from scratch. We sent out monthly employee communications about our offerings and my employee proofread the communications before they went out. He was consistently missing typos and errors, and it was starting to reflect poorly on our department.

I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and waited too long to talk to him about it. When I finally did, I had the presence of mind to ask, “Can you help me understand what’s going on here?”

“Well, yes,” he replied, “I’m glad you asked.” I leaned in, waiting for a grand admission of incompetence.

“You see, I need to look at hard copies when I’m proofreading, but I can’t get my computer hooked up to our printer. And no matter how much time I spent on the phone with IT, they can’t figure it out either.”

I was stunned and sheepish, especially because I’m in the business of building effective leaders.  He was trying to do the right thing, but something out of his control was making it impossible. I picked up the phone, bossed around a few IT dweebs, and the problem was fixed.

Managers spent an average of 34 days per year dealing with performance problems. And in my work with leaders, from the frontline to the C-suite, managing poor performers is a constant struggle. Most leaders know that they need to deal with performance issues, but still “kick the dead whale down the beach,” as one of my clients says. You’re busy. Maybe you don’t know how to have performance conversations. Or you simply hope the problem will fix itself.

In this blog, my steadfast goal will be to provide practical, science-based approaches that take the fear and mystery out of effective leadership. Let’s start this journey by reviewing four basic questions you should ask anytime you have a poor performer on your hands:

1. Does the employee understand my expectations?

In my experience, 50% of performance issues come from failure on the part of the leader to provide clear expectations. Have you ever had a friend or family member who is angry at you, but won’t say why? It’s crazy-making! Likewise, your employees can’t read your mind and you have to be clear about what you want. Clarity is rarely achieved through platitudes (“You need to be a team player”) or policies (“The dress code says you’ll be fired if you wear jean shorts”).


You can create clarity through regular and honest conversations with a lot of specifics (“I expect you to grow your sales numbers by 10% in one year”) and behavioral examples (“An example of being a team player is staying late if needed to help a colleague with a deadline”).

2. Is there something outside of the employee’s control preventing them from performing?

As we saw in my story, this is an easy mistake to make. Leaders usually see results (or lack thereof), but not the process employees used to get there. So before you chastise them, find out what’s going on. Don’t let the poor performer off the hook and blame others (“I would have gotten this done if Sally hasn’t been so stupid”), but be willing to abandon your assumptions and really listen. If you hear a true obstacle, this is low-hanging fruit. Ask, “How can I help you remove this obstacle?” Then do it!

3. Do they know they’re not performing?

If you’ve exhausted the above questions, it’s time for a tough conversation. You can’t put these conversations off, or the problem will just get worse. I have a client who recently fired someone for stealing—this person had worked there for more than 10 years, having been passed from manager to manager, each of whom were kicking the dead whale down the beach. The company could have saved a lot of heartache (and money!) if someone had taken action. Now, if you’re wondering how to have these scary feedback conversations, stay tuned for next month’s blog, where we’ll learn tips for delivering No Fear Feedback

4. Am I perpetuating their performance problem?

Don’t get defensive, but when I meet a poor performer, the leader’s expectations of them are often magnifying the problem. Just like Smokey Bear, you have the power to prevent (or at least minimize) poor performance. Joseph Folkman and his colleagues studied a group of poor-performing employees. Though the employees were usually behaving in ways that justified their moniker, Folkman found that their managers were also treating them differently than other employees. Interestingly, problem employees just wanted their leaders to believe in them. Once leaders started treating them like everyone else, their behavior improved.

In sum, effective leaders take performance issues seriously but don’t give up until they’re confident the employee’s performance won’t improve. If you’ve made your way through the four questions with no improvement, it’s time to face reality.  Without minimizing the seriousness of letting someone go, sometimes the best thing for a poor performing employee is to give her the opportunity (hopefully with a good severance package) to find what she’s really great at. I have a good friend who once told me, “I never regret letting someone go too soon. But I almost always regret keeping someone who isn’t performing on my team for far too long.”