Difficult conversations: Help managers tackle under-performance

Difficult conversations – we all need to have them at some point. Let Vicky Roberts give you a few tips. 

Performance management development is the bread and butter of many an L&D team. When it comes to looking at managing underperformance, it can be a challenge to make it stick.

L&D professionals are well-versed in the conversation with businesses about the need for follow up after a training intervention. When tackling underperformance, however – even with a good structure of follow up in place – the training needs certain features to overcome the hurdles and ensure it makes a difference.

These barriers manifest in a number of ways, such as managers claiming that the company’s procedures are ‘complex’ or ‘take too long’; or examples of underperformance never reaching the formal stage of the procedure. Instead, they are swept under the carpet or worked around. 

The barriers to ‘sticky’ training relate to three main issues that arise time and time again:

Fear of the situation being ‘legal’

Managers can be hindered in driving forward performance management by a fear of being accused of constructive dismissal, bullying or unfair treatment. In performance management training, there tends to be a strong focus on the manager’s intervention being constructive, positive and solution-oriented. 

That has to be the right approach, but when looking at underperformance, if there isn’t also enough weight given to what happens if the performance does not improve after support, managers’ reticence to go formal can stop the training making a difference.   

When tackling underperformance, training needs certain features to overcome hurdles and ensure it makes a difference.

Performance management undertaken informally stands managers in good stead if a situation needs to become formal capability management. It is very important that training covers what formal steps should be taken and why, so that managers can see the value of the informal management, and recognise that the transition from informal to formal is not such a big step as it first appears.

Focusing on the legal framework also reassures managers that management of underperformance, done the right way, will not equate to bullying in the eyes of the law.

A sense of a lack of entitlement to set expectations

This is particularly challenging when the performance issue is the ‘hows’ of the job rather than measures such as targets/figures – the ‘whats’. For example, an employee may be doing well in meeting KPIs, but exhibiting poor behaviour.

In this scenario, managers often feel like they aren’t entitled to be the judge of something subjective such as behaviour, even with the organisation’s values there to support them. Also, when the team member is delivering on the whats of the job, they are reticent to upset the applecart by tackling a lack of performance in the hows.  

This is why training must ensure the manager knows they have the right to manage, and provide tools to explain what they need their team member to deliver. 

If managers do not feel entitled to ask something of an employee that isn’t explicit in the job description, managers can feel that the company’s policies and procedures do not support them to tackle the real issues. They should be reassured that it is within their rights to set expectations for the team member, and performance management training is a good place to give them this confidence.  


Managers are often concerned that their decisions about performance management will be criticised for being inconsistent with what another manager has done in a similar case.  As a result, they do not push forward to manage the situation in their team. 

Managers can fall into the trap of thinking that two staff members, underperforming to the same degree, have to be treated the same in the interest of fairness. The cause of underperformance might actually be very different; it is not inconsistent to treat them differently if the manager is responding to the cause of the underperformance in each individual case.

A good example is training two people to run a marathon. One is a seasoned sprinter, the other a beginner. The goal is the same, but the training plan would vary – it’s not inconsistent or unfair if the separate cases are being treated differently.

If the managers are trained on how to correctly identify the performance gap, as well as the cause, they will be confident to identify a suitable solution without feeling concerned about inconsistency across the organisation.

These three barriers all arise from ingrained attitudes born out of well-intentioned concerns, but they can be overcome if the training tackles it head-on.   

Then, HR and senior management can help to embed the behaviour change and increase confidence: implement the coaching from L&D and employee relations immediately afterwards, and avoid a ‘you can’t do that’ approach to employee relations advice. ‘Tone from the top’ is also important in that senior management should be prioritising and advocating the importance of performance management.

Addressing these ingrained fears will take time, but can be expected to be resolved by giving managers both meaningful training and support to apply their knowledge and skills. 



About the author

Vicky Roberts is head of v-learning at employer services company Vista


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