Poor Performers Probably Don’t Know


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Addressing performance issues is always tough. Many managers are uncomfortable discussing poor performance issues with poor performers.

There are a number of factors that could make these conversations even more difficult–for both the manager and poor performer. Here some things that make these conversations very difficult:

First, poorly defined performance expectations. I’m amazed had how many organizations don’t put in place well defined performance plans. A quota isn’t a performance plan! It’s an element of a performance plan, but a good performance plan clearly defines performance expectations, development expectations and a number of other things. It should include quantitative and qualitative objectives. Ideally, the performance plan is developed collaboratively between the sales person and manager. Ideally, we periodically through the year, we review how the person is doing against those criteria. Performance plans can be very powerful in defining the behaviors we expect, creating development and growth plans, and in helping the person understand overall expectations.

But too often, these aren’t in place. The sales person has no idea how their performance will be evaluated and no idea whether they are performing well or not.

Overlay this with no or poor coaching from management. As managers, our job is to maximize the performance of every person on our team. The highest leverage tool we have to do this is coaching our people, helping them understand their current performance, helping them discover the problems with that performance, and helping them improve. But coaching poor performers is tough. It’s more fun and engaging to work with our top performers. With poor performers, it’s a challenge, the conversations are sometimes difficult, the progress is slower than we would like. Sometimes, we struggle in trying to identify how to help them improve.

And that’s if we are attempting to coach at all—-the problem is, too often, poor performers just don’t get any or the right kind of coaching.

The challenge doesn’t stop there.

There is a recent study mentioned in the HBR blog that says “poor performers often don’t recognize they are poor performers, ……. often vastly overestimating their performance.” They cite a study where people were asked to respond to a set of questions, then asked, “How many do you think you got right?” The lowest scorers had an average response of 7 out of 10, when in reality they got 0 right.

It kind of makes sense. If people don’t know what good performance is, if they don’t understand performance expectations, they are very likely to have a mistaken impression of their own impression. Add to that the fact that it’s human nature for most of us to overestimate our own performances; the results of this study are very understandable.

So in addition to their poor performance, poor performers have a lot that’s outside their abilities going against them. The bottom line, they just may not realize they are poor performers!

So what do we do? Many might respond, “Why bother!” Others might say, “Get rid of them!”

I don’t think that’s the right answer. We, as leaders, have put them in their jobs. It’s our obligation as leaders to clearly define performance expectations, making sure they understand them. It’s our job to provide clear and direct feedback on their performance, coupled with coaching on how to improve their performance. We can get poor performers to understand their performance gaps. We can help them improve performance through setting clear objectives and coaching. Some will respond and improve, some may not and we may have to take other actions.

But we can’t ignore them and we can’t expect them, or anyone for that matter, to understand how they are performing without clear performance objectives and feedback.

Do your poor performers understand your expectations?

Do they understand how they are falling short?

Do they understand, specifically, what they need to do to improve their performance? (As well as the consequences of not improving their performance.)

Are you providing effective coaching and ongoing feedback to help them improve?

Do you have an accurate view of your own performance?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: good point that poor performers don’t know they’re poor performers if there aren’t any benchmarks or standards for measurement. It’s hard for a manager to have credibility when he or she sits down with a salesperson and says “it just seems like you aren’t doing a good job.” And, as you point out, if the only solid artifact that manager can bring to the conversation is % of quota achieved to date, the discussion won’t be very useful for anyone.

    As far as your mention about managers saying ‘why bother?’ or ‘get rid of [the low performer]’ – that challenge can be addressed in part through the manager’s bonus plan. Among the more effective incentives I’ve seen is tying a portion of the manager’s bonus to every one of his or her direct reports making goal. I won’t say it eliminates salesperson churn, but it sure encourages managers to make more intelligent hiring decisions, to coach more effectively, and to not give up on those who they feel – for whatever reason – aren’t worth helping.

  2. Andrew, I agree with part of your suggestion but really disagree with another part. Coaching is a fundamental part of a manager’s job. If a manager is coaching or managing performance, the manager simply isn’t doing the job.

    It’s a fundamental performance expectation of managers. I would argue that is managed through the manager’s own performance plan, not through a bonus element.

    I do like the concept of part of the bonus being based on the number of people making their goals.

  3. Dave: in my previous comment, I am suggesting that when sales managers receive a component of their bonus based on a specific percentage of their direct reports making quota, the right management behaviors will be encouraged.

    That plan does not – and should not – reward managers directly for performing what they should be doing as part of their job anyway. Like most incentive plans, the reward should be provided for achieving a specific outcome or result. For the same reason, this is why I mostly don’t favor providing salespeople with variable compensation for hitting activity targets.

    By the way, with regard to providing managers bonus when their team achieves goal – my experience has been that this is earned when every direct report meets or exceeds target. But 100% might not be practical for every organization or for every situation.


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