Guiding Principles for Tricky Performance Issues

Guiding Principles for Tricky Performance Issues
By Paul Clifford

Performance management is not an activity many look forward to, regardless of what your role is in the process. I think the crux of the issue for many is the fear of giving and receiving negative feedback. Performance management can be even more challenging when the person’s overall performance falls below expected standards. The challenge ratchets up another notch when a sensitive issue is involved such as suspicions that a physical or mental health issue may be a contributing factor. It’s in these situations that managers really earn their money.

Unfortunately few managers feel completely comfortable that they have the skills and knowledge to navigate these situations. Many feel anywhere from unsure to terrified and many seek guidance on what to do. If managers do suspect that a physical or mental health issue may be at play in a performance management situation, a useful course of action is to avoid getting too bogged down in the nuances of the situation and instead take a step back and apply some key principles.

Principles to follow

1. Focus on behaviour not diagnosis

The first step that often assists many managers is when they are told that their role is not to diagnose but to note behaviour. Is the behaviour causing an issue? If it is then that is what you would be wise to focus on with the employee. The identification and rationale for that behaviour is potentially a personal issue, and as such should be left to the individual to sort out. Of course your role is to support the individual but such support does not and should not extend to helping to identify the explanation or root cause of the behaviour. Why? Doing so will undermine your ability to continue to act as that person’s manager because you will have crossed the line into very personal territory. Once the line is crossed, the person will no longer see you as their manager, undermining your ability to execute the effective actions of management – direction of duties, setting expectations of standards, applying sanctions if required. For the sake of managing the essential boundaries of management it is critical that you maintain the individual’s responsibility for diagnosing the problem.

2. Be clear on the performance standards you expect.

In some instances managers avoid challenging performance issues because they justify the behaviour as peripheral. “Well he is achieving his KPIs, I know he’s had plenty of complaints about him but he wins business for us”. Just because someone is achieving the core KPIs of their role doesn’t mean they are fulfilling their obligations as an employee. If you act as though the behaviour is peripheral then so too will the employee. There is nothing more infuriating to fellow employees than when they see an employee fail to help any of their colleagues, yet secure bonuses for meeting sales or revenue targets.

Managers might suspect that a performance issue is related to a health issue and become even more nervous about dealing with it by downplaying the significance of the performance issue, deeming it peripheral. However, if the behaviour is having a significant impact on the business, including morale and team cohesion, it is important that the expectation has been set from the outset and any suspicion of a health issue is not used to ignore the behaviour altogether.       

3. Make reasonable adjustments

An important step any manager needs to take when managing the performance of their staff is to make reasonable adjustments to the role if deemed necessary. This means identifying ways the work could still get done effectively that accommodate the employee’s difficulties in fulfilling the requirements of the role. As an example an employee may experience severe anxiety when presenting face to face to clients. It may be that this is only a small part of the role and alternatives such as video-conferencing or handing the responsibility for presentations to a colleague is quite feasible. Where such presentations are a core part of the role and business is proven to be won face to face, it may be unreasonable to expect the employer to continue to employ the individual in that role. The questions “Do I need to make adjustments to a role?” and “to what degree?” are not clear-cut and require a judgement call. Often it is a matter of working in tandem with the employee to identify some creative solutions to change the way work is done that do two things - firstly, to minimise, as much as possible, the behaviour, or at least its impact on the individual and others; secondly to potentially improve work performance and to understand the point at which adjustment may be unreasonable such that work performance would be undermined significantly.   

4. Offer training, support and other appropriate resources    

Where a manager suspects a physical or mental health issue may be contributing to under-performance, the potential still exists to alleviate the issue somewhat or completely through training or coaching. For example, in some cases where an employee is exhibiting aggressive and unco-operative behaviours with colleagues and clients they may also be experiencing challenges with anxiety and depression. The battle with these mental health issues may be fuelling these behaviours. However, in order to assist the individual with managing these behaviours you don’t need to know that anxiety and depression are behind them. All you need to focus on is “what support can I offer the individual in replacing aggressive and unco-operative behaviours with calm and co-operative behaviours?” This may include some one-on-one coaching where you combine a great deal of empathy, patience and tolerance with discussion about how the coachee could change their interpretation of events (self-talk) and other strategies to replace an emotional response with a rational one. By focusing on the behaviour and working constructively to manage it you will be simultaneously assisting that person with their anxiety and depression. However, there may be some other things that person could be doing to work on their anxiety and depression, but that is their responsibility as mentioned earlier.  

It is also worth considering offering support, training and/or coaching to the individual’s colleagues. This can have the dual effect of assisting colleagues who may be struggling with their response to the individual, and the individual themselves whose challenging behaviours may improve through more constructive colleague behaviour.           

5. Assist with transitioning out if required

If you have set clear expectations of performance, provided feedback on exactly where the person’s behaviour is falling below expectations, made any reasonable adjustments, put in place any training and support that may assist, and provided the person with a reasonable period for the behaviour to change, and yet the performance remains below acceptable levels, you are faced with the option of exiting the employee from their current role. Many questions arise at this point. “Do we have the courage to do so?” “Is there another role in the organisation, or in another organisation, that the person can do where they will meet expectations?” “Will they accept the need to transition?” “How far can and should we go to assist that transition?”

At this point a difficult yet frank conversation with the employee about their current capabilities as evidenced by their behaviour may be required. In the end it may go one of two ways. The person accepts the gaps in their capability and agrees to assistance from you in transitioning, or the person remains in denial and you sever ties according to contractual obligations.

You may be nervous about terminating someone’s employment and the option to review your decision with your legal counsel is one you could take up. However, this may not be necessary. If you have set up legally sound processes as a foundation of your business’ operation and trained your managers in implementing the processes correctly, reviewing each decision with legal counsel may be overkill.  


Sometimes managers get too caught up in the particulars of a performance management ‘case’ and over-complicate matters. The desperate search to understand what’s really going on and the simultaneous fear of finding out can make it seem all too hard. However, the above guiding principles can make things a lot easier to manage and a lot less anxiety provoking. The key to managing a performance issue confounded by a potential physical or mental health issue is to keep in focus where your responsibilities lie and what lies within the domain of the individual. Over-reaching your responsibilities is unnecessary and potentially counter-productive for you and the individual concerned.            


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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019