Every HR pro knows that there really is no “secret to better performance management.”

Strategies and techniques for improving individual and team performance evolve and new practices emerge but the overall concepts that make up performance management are well-known and widely implemented.

But there are some secrets to improving performance management results.

The most important one is that you can’t just discard techniques that you’ve tried and then set aside because they didn’t work as you hoped.

If you take a fresh look at some of these “failed” approaches you might find they can work both for individual workers and teams.

It’s worth the effort — you’ll see results in happier, more engaged workers; improved productivity, and a healthier work environment.

Manager, know thyself

Before you can be effective in helping an employee to improve performance, you need to think carefully about yourself.

How might your own personality, work style, likes and dislikes, and unconscious biases and preconceptions color your assessment of a particular employee’s work and how you communicate with them?

Remember, as you are working to help employees improve their own performance they are observing how you handle yourself, so take some time to look from their perspective.

  • How quickly do you respond to issues?
  • How do you react when faced with adversity?
  • How do you interact with others?
  • Are you overly formal or informal?
  • Are you too blunt or too analytical?

Was the problem that the technique just didn’t fit with your organization’s environment or work style? Or was it how you tried to put it into practice?

Looking back at a technique that didn’t work through this lens can be really helpful in making it work for you this time.

Once you have a handle on these questions, you’re ready to start the collaborative process of assessing and improving employees’ performance.

The most common performance issues

Based on decades of experience in working with employee and leadership teams at organizations of all sizes, these are the performance issues that come up again and again.

  • Individual productivity or lack thereof — Employee’s output of work is less than wanted and expected.
  • Attitude and dealing with others — The employee may be consistently negative, won’t speak up, is disrespectful to supervisors and co-workers, or exhibits other negative attitudes that hurt team morale and productivity.
  • Ability to work with others — Whether they have interpersonal issues, produce at a different volume than their peers, or don’t understand teamwork, some employees stand out in a negative way and negatively affect team performance.
  • Quality of work — Even where the volume of work meets your standards and expectation, the quality of that work is consistently below expectations for their position, experience level, etc.
  • Timeliness and responsiveness — An employee’s work is often behind schedule, they don’t show urgency in responding to requests, or they don’t meet commitments.
  • Refusal to follow instructions — Some employees resist being told how to do their work and fight against necessary changes.

Collaborate with your employees

There are steps you can take right now to increase collaboration with your employees around their performance.

Just as you assessed your own strengths, weaknesses, preconceptions and blind spots, the first thing you need to do is think about how you see their individual traits and abilities and if your perceptions are really accurate.

The most effective way to do that is to sit down with the employee and explore some key questions together.

First, why is that individual here? What are their objectives and expectations for their job? Why are they here, in this role right now?

Have you put him or her in an environment that allows them to enjoy their job? If, for example, you put an introverted person into a team of boisterous, talkative highly energetic people, that employee is probably not going to be able to do their best work.

Successful performance management puts a lot of the work of changing on you — if one approach isn’t working with an employee, you have to keep trying new things and adjusting in how you interact with them.

Raising team performance

A team is only as good as its parts. A poor performer — whether a complainer, someone who doesn’t show up to work on time or leaves early, or a is poor communicator, will bring down a team’s overall results. If colleagues see that they are consistently producing more work or higher quality work that the poorly performing employee, over time their own commitment to quality work will slide.

If you leave your poor performers interacting only with other “C-team” folks — or have them working only with the middle group while your stars are off working by themselves — the performance of your C team group will stay below what you want, and your B teamers will tend to slide backwards. The key is to find ways to flip that script, where the examples set by your high performing A team brings up the work of the whole group.

You want your highest performers to interact with your least productive employees. That could mean just putting a cheerful, upbeat A-teamer with a consistently disgruntled colleague or mixing them together on a project.

If your stars are working and interacting regularly with the bottom 10 percent of their team you’re likely to see improvements in those employees’ work and in the team’s results.

Development Opportunity

And there’s another benefit as well: doing things this way creates valuable development opportunities for your top employees.

Before you pair a top performer with one of your problematic employees for the first time, it’s a good time for a conversation like this:

“Based on your performance, I expect that you will take on more official or unofficial leadership roles, whether as manager or a team lead, etc. For anyone in that position, one of the most challenging things is dealing with difficult people.”

“Because I think you are ready for that challenge, I am going to put you and Frank together on a [team, project, workers’ council]. As you know, he can be a little tough to deal with and I think that this is a good opportunity for you to build your leadership skill set.”

By expressing your confidence and explaining your intentions, you’ve set up your A-teamer for success.

Frank is likely to grumble no matter who you pair him with or how you explain things, but you will have at least given him a reason to make an effort and indicated how you’ll measure success. And if it works, Frank will stop being a drag on the overall team’s performance and show other marginal employees a path to grow, if they want it.

Consider other influences

It’s also important to look at what outside issues that you are not aware of might be impacting your employees’ performance. Here are some examples:

Over the course of an HR pro’s career, they are almost certain to encounter employees who have progressed in their own careers but who have puzzling but real gaps in their skills and capabilities.

Training is often haphazard, without a formal structure for making sure that employees are learning what they should.

It’s your job to explore whether they really have been trained properly. If they have gone through training but don’t show that they’ve absorbed it, it might be that they learn differently from other workers.

How do they see their role? If you don’t understand how they see themselves in the job, it is very hard to know what you need to address to help them elevate their performance.

Do employees have resources and time needed to perform up to your expectations?

Are employees content in their current role? Anyone doing a job that they simply don’t like is never going to produce really good work.

Are there underlying personal issues involved?

In most cases, taking the time to understand why issues are arising and being clear-eyed about helping employees to learn and grow is worth the investment in time and money.

Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience? – Thomas J.Watson

 Coach, inspire, empower, motivate

Successful performance management includes coaching employees on how they can achieve success in specific areas; inspiring them to make sustained effort; empowering employees by giving them authority that matches their responsibilities; and motivating team effort, improved performance and professional growth.


When you coach an employee, start from a positive place. Be open — explain that you are working to help them improve their work.

Keep it specific and ask them to come to the session prepared to share their own impression of how they are doing.

Include attitude and productivity as performance expectations.

As with every other aspect of people management, of course, it is critical that you document and share proof of relevant performance issues at the start of the coaching process.

Follow up through the W x W x W (W3 formula). What will be done by Who by When? Effective coaching requires that both you and the employee make solid commitments to each step in the process.

Inspire employees to take action

If employees are just showing up for the paycheck, you’ll likely never see performance improvement from them.

When they look forward to showing up and creating value each day, you’re likely to see continuous individual improvement and team members who boost each other up.

Empower employees to acheive more

Giving an employee responsibility without also giving them the authority needed to make decisions, get resources, and guide others’ work as necessary is a recipe for failure.

The key is, as always, communication. While discussing an assignment, ask the employee what authority THEY think they’ll need.

That wish list is usually going to be more that you can actually fulfill completely but working together you can make sure that they are empowered to do what is needed to get the job done.

Motivating employees to higher performance

Building and sustaining an energized workforce that takes initiative and is positive requires creating an inspiring atmosphere. Some of the key features of such a workplace are:

  • A creative work environment where employees are able to express themselves openly.
  • A work environment not stifled by unnecessary process and policy hurdles.
  • A challenging and constructive work environment featuring constant feedback.
  • Leadership that listens and responds to employees.
  • A collaborative and cross-functional workforce where diversity is cherished.

Employees recognize the difference between empty slogans and real commitment and will respond to an organization that walks the walk in creating a great place to work.

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