A reader asks:
I've put a staff member on to a formal performance improvement plan, but despite my providing feedback and taking multiple approaches to get through to him, he doesn't seem to be able to grasp just how poorly he is doing.
I want him to succeed and have supported many conversations, participation in mentoring and coaching, formal and informal training, attempts to build a peer network, ongoing feedback, and participation at conferences and events. I've tried as many techniques as I know and have had advice on new ones to try, but they don't get through. He appears to work best with specific instruction, which isn't generally possible for the role he is in, because his role is more about managing a team, strategy, being future focused, communicating with many different stakeholders, complex problem-solving, and playing the political game.
The improvement plan, which has a month left on it, is clear that we will let him go at the end of it if he doesn't improve, and both I and HR have talked him through it.
He spends a lot of time telling me and his team and other colleagues how good he is and how much he has to contribute, but he just isn't delivering. Recently he's missed two deadlines, but has spent that time telling me how much he is enjoying the opportunity to do this work and being given the chance to show me how good he can be.
Do you have advice on how to get through to an overconfident staff member (where that confidence is very misplaced)?
I've been as blunt as making hand gestures of him needing to be up here (gestures) and showing he has only progressed to about here (gestures much lower). I am trying to be cautious that I'm not forever giving only negative feedback or corrections, but when I give positive feedback he latches on to that and can't seem to hear anything else.
If you've been very clear about a) the problems in his work and what you need to see change and b) the fact that he will be fired at the end of the improvement plan if you don't see sufficient improvement, then you've done what you need to do. If he's refusing to hear clear warnings, you don't have to keep hammering the point home.
But first be sure you've truly been clear. Sometimes managers think they have, but when I dig into exactly what they've said, it turns out that their wording has been mushier than they thought. In particular, managers are sometimes reluctant to say words like "If you don't do XYZ, I will need to let you go." Even though it's true, saying it feels harsh or unkind to them, so instead they use fuzzier language like "We'll need to reassess your role here" or "It's really important that you make these changes" or "We may need to let you go." But the absolute kindest thing you can do in a situation like this is to spell out the truth so that the person has the same information you do and isn't blindsided at the end of the process.
If you're not positive that you've done that, or if you think the message hasn't been received, then you should say something like this: "I want to make sure that we're on the same page because I don't want you to be blindsided. Right now, I'm not seeing the improvement that I need, and unless you make significant changes in your work by the end of the month, we will need to let you go."
All this said, sometimes people just don't believe what you're telling them, no matter how clear you are. I've seen people be truly shocked they were getting fired despite being told two weeks previously, "We'll reassess your performance in two weeks, and if we haven't seen XYZ at that point, I will need to let you go."
I've never been sure why that is. Maybe they've been warned in previous jobs but the manager never followed through with firing them, so they don't take the warnings seriously. Maybe it's a defense mechanism, or a way to save face.
But regardless of the explanation, it's not your job to manage his reactions. Your job is to be very clear about what you need and where he's falling short, and about the consequences if he doesn't improve and the timeline for those consequences. If you've done that, you've covered all the bases you can.
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