What dodging performance conversations might be saying to your team

A number of years ago I became aware of an aspect of performance that I’d never considered before. In particular, this situation was about addressing poor performance, or, more accurately, the failure to address poor performance. While working on a large organizational transformation I had the opportunity, as is so often the case, to work with a number of other consulting firms. One morning after a meeting, the onsite lead for one of the firms approached me to ask for coaching. At first I was a bit taken aback. It’s unusual for consulting firms to ask one another for any kind of help, as there is a great deal of attention on maintaining one’s image and invincibility. Feeling curious, I accepted and we set up a meeting for the following day.

After some initial small talk, John got pretty quickly to the point. The problem, it seemed, was that he thought he was failing at his job, but his manager kept telling him the opposite. For this project, he’d staffed up with engineers on the client site before he could put them to work due to slippages in the work plan. As a consequence, the client was paying 15-20 engineers to sit at their desks and do nothing. In his opinion, this obvious mismanagement on his part was a significant performance issue. The CEO and his immediate boss, however, kept assuring him that he was doing a great job. What he concluded from their reluctance to discuss his performance was that they did not think very much of him and had no commitment to his success or future. If they truly valued him, they would be addressing his performance and giving him appropriate feedback. Given this conclusion, he had started looking around for other jobs where he might find a company committed to his future.

I must admit to being taken aback by where the conversation went. As he laid out the issue, I assumed he wanted to discuss how to handle the breakdown with the client, or how to communicate with his boss to minimize the impact. The upset caused by his company’s failure to address his performance was not where I’d imagined the conversation going. This revealed to me an unforeseen consequence of failing to address performance issues- that your employee will be left thinking that you simply don’t value them enough to bring up the issue or be straight about it when you do. It also offers the possibility of an entirely new context for those tough performance conversations – that they are an opportunity to express your commitment to the person and their future in your organization.

In John’s case, I recommended he call his boss and share what he had communicated with me rather than operating out of a set of untested conclusions. A few days later he told me that the situation had been happily resolved. His boss and CEO, it had turned out, had been reluctant to address the issue for exactly the opposite reason. They were concerned that being too straight with him about the issue with the client might put him off and drive him away when they were planning to fast track him to the executive level. They promised to have straight conversations about his performance in the future, which they did immediately by addressing the breakdown with the client and agreeing on a way forward.

This conversation has stayed with me as it serves as a valuable reminder when I’m dodging the issue of someone’s performance. I invite you to look into your organization and see if there is anyone whose performance you’re avoiding addressing and consider what might be the unintended message you are delivering. There could be an opportunity to address not only their performance, but also to express how much you value their current and future contributions to your organization.