Guest blog – John Renz – How to Manage Senior Performance (without blood on the floor)

John Renz shares his HRD experience of senior-level performance management.

Quite often when we talk about work-based performance we think about competence in fairly narrow terms and/or conduct, i.e. when someone consistently fails to meet expectations in terms of effectiveness in their role, or if aspects of their behaviour breach the expected standard.

Such circumstances are usually dealt with by employing standard processes and approaches designed not only to address the specifics of the situation but also to apply remedies.

A remedy might be legal advice and consideration if circumstances merit dismissal since this is rightly a last resort and rarely one employed successfully without considerable effort. Far more difficult for organisations are circumstances in which no single event or issue is the problem, but instead there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with a senior individual or sudden deterioration in either conduct or behaviour. Not a crisis so much as a slide, or failure to operate at the usual level.

Going ‘off the boil’ and not being as effective a senior team member, or suddenly not behaving in the usual way, can and will in many circumstances become a real issue – but frequently will not be picked up effectively, or with sufficient nuance, in the dreaded annual appraisal.

Nevertheless, to have people underperforming, particularly those who are senior, can do real damage.

There can be a reluctance to address these issues, working on the rationale that perhaps it’s just a short-term blip, or that the individual has been so effective in the past that they deserve latitude in terms of coasting or having issues glossed over.

In my experience, ignoring issues or turning a blind eye is not only poor people management and unfair to the individual, but it’s also bad management generally – and can result ultimately in unnecessarily brutal solutions being employed. It is this accumulation or build-up of discontent that can result in rash and ill-considered actions from the top, with ensuing ‘blood on the floor’. The individual has been blissfully unaware of growing discontent so that by the time the inevitable chat happens, many opportunities to support them and resolve the situation have been missed.

I have witnessed individuals sincerely unaware of growing concern so that when matters come to a head they have been very shocked; in equal measure, individuals can sometimes inadvertently test an organisation to see just how much they can get away with. Responding at the end of your tether is rarely a recipe for a drama-free conversation with a guaranteed positive outcome.

So why do we avoid or ignore underperformance or ‘bad behaviour’ at the senior level? Is it misplaced loyalty, fear of reprisals or legal action? Maybe it’s an embarrassment, as we may not know how to deal with the answer to the question ‘why’.

All of these reasons are really excuses and count as an indulgence when someone is being paid to manage a team.

The angry, rash, even aggressive responses when you’ve finally had enough are precisely the point at which time-consuming and high-cost solutions become a risk – when you’re angry enough, they seem worthwhile and you can certainly justify them to yourself…

Having robust, legally-sound solutions to performance issues are, of course, key elements of the good management of risks around people. In addition – and just to add to the relentless chat about culture – an environment which encourages honest and transparent discussions with people on all relevant aspects is also key to addressing performance issues quickly and effectively.

Senior-level development is often the poor cousin within the training budget. It is often assumed that given how experienced people are that no help is required – this is wrong. Early interventions offering career review, one to one coaching or team facilitation often unearth in a non-threatening and safe environment the space to be entirely open with someone external to the business. Such work can help address the blockages to high performance – no matter what they might be. Development should be a continuous process and senior people where their impact is the greatest should be at the head of the queue when thinking about raising performance and addressing engagement issues.

All employees deserve to be treated fairly, and to do so can communicate to other employees the ability and maturity of an organisation to address head-on, and swiftly, things that are just not right. Very often the conversation about why you have concerns can lead to immediate improvement.

In other circumstances, an individual may just need to be refocused, re-energised and pointed in the right direction. Sometimes an ‘adult’ conversation about their future can reveal a long-held desire to move on or out.

It’s not quite rocket science, but senior-level performance is too important to ignore, and with suitable and timely help and guidance can be managed without bloodshed.

John Renz, Director – Executive Action

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Posted on Friday 13th May 2022

This article/blog is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.