Five Steps in Confronting Poor Work Performance

One of the toughest challenges a leader faces is confronting poor performance. Most leaders avoid it. And when they can’t avoid it any longer, they often handle it poorly.

It requires courage to confront someone. It is never easy, and if you do find it easy, that’s most likely a problem. It was never meant to be easy. But it can be easier if we know what to do—a large part of our problem is that we don’t know what to do or how to approach it. We often don’t know where to begin.

That’s the purpose of this article—to give you something you can do and something you can use—somewhere you can begin.

A Five-Step Process for Addressing Poor Performance

A number of years ago, I came across some books by Ferdinand Fournies, published mostly in the 1980s. As far as I can tell, he was never that well-known, but he offered some very helpful approaches to dealing with persistent performance issues (one of his books, Coaching for Improved Work Performance, is listed in the resources, though it may be difficult to get hold of). He proposed a five-step approach that has been very helpful to me over the years. It has the great value of being remedial; the purpose is to try to help the individual, not to build a legal case for eventual dismissal. This approach doesn’t guarantee that you’ll succeed in rehabilitating the person, but you’ll succeed more often than you would otherwise.

Below are the five steps, followed by an example Fournies himself provides. These steps come with a caveat: Fournies focused strictly on changing behavior, and, as we have discussed in previous LQBs™, we know that to really change behavior, you have to address the internal drivers that push that behavior. But even though he didn’t go deeper than the visible behavior, his five-step approach still allows us to do so. More of that later; in the meantime, here are the five steps.

1. Together agree that a problem exists. This is the starting point, and if you can’t get agree on this one, you can’t go to the next step—or any of the subsequent steps. This is more than just verbal assent: this a willingness on their part to own the problem and a willingness to do something about it. This step is longest and hardest, but once you get there, you can go on to the next one. If you can’t agree on this one, your choice is simple, though not easy: you can decide to live with it, or you can let the person go or move them.

2. Together explore different solutions. In this stage, as in every stage, you ask questions; you don’t tell. You want the solutions to come from him or her. This is brainstorming—you don’t decide; you explore. What could the individual do to resolve the performance behavior? At this point, you are collecting ideas. When you have enough, you move on to the next stage.

3. Together agree on the action to be taken. From all the ideas that you discussed in the previous stage, which ones rise to the top? Ask him to identify the ones he’s going to work on, and to commit to working on them.

4. Follow up to see if that action has been taken. If he or she has agreed to take certain steps, you need to follow up with them to make sure that those steps were taken.

5. Reinforce any progress made. Recognize improvement—this is validating and important.

Applying the Five Steps

Let’s apply this to a basic, practical example, one that Fournies provides. Imagine you have an employee who is consistently late, sometimes ten minutes, sometimes fifteen, even at times thirty minutes late … at least once a week, maybe more. Your first step is to get him to agree that a problem exists—which it clearly is, not only for him, but also for others, who resent his tardiness. If your first questions about the impact on his work prove fruitless—in other words, he doesn’t see any negative ramifications for his peformance—you might ask him, “What impact do you think your tardiness has on your coworkers? How do you think they react to it? How does that impact my job—when they complain to me of the extra workload and unfair standards?”

What if he blows off this argument because of his overall performance—and let’s assume that he is more productive than the others—what then? “When they start performing at my level,” he says, “let’s talk then.” Clearly he hasn’t bought into the fact that a problem exists, and he remains unfazed by the plight of his coworkers. At this point, the only likelihood of his acknowledging that a problem really does exist is for him to see the impact that it might have on his own career. So you might ask him, “If I am considering two employees for promotion—both are equally competent, but one is more reliable than the other, which one am I going to choose?” At this point, if he sees the connection between his performance and his prospects, he might actually begin to acknowledge that a problem really does exist. If he is still unfazed and unresponsive, you are back to your two options—live with the unsatisfactory performance (a very unsatisfactory option), or part company.

Let’s assume he does agree: the rest becomes much easier. You explore the causes (an unreliable carpool, an unreliable car, too many late nights …) and the solutions (change car pool, change vehicle, change life style …). You then both agree on the action he’ll take (step 3), and then your task is to follow up to make sure the action has been taken, and to make sure you reinforce the progress you see (steps 4 and 5).

What if this doesn’t work? You are, once again, back to your two options: live with the unsatisfactory performance (a very unsatisfactory option), or part company.

The Importance of the First Step

The example Fournies provides above is limited on a number of counts. For one thing, most of us are dealing with performance issues far more complex than simple tardiness. Fournies’ focus was always on frontline leadership, and at that level, and perhaps also at that time when he was writing, you could be more strictly behaviorist in your approach to performance issues.

But as we have often argued in these LQBs™, behavior is driven by values, and values are shaped by our worldview—the sum of all the experiences we’ve been through and the conclusions we have drawn about the world around us and how it works. The deeper performance issues we typically confront are not resolved without probing beyond the behavior itself to the thinking that drives the behavior—digging down to those assumptions that are often false, usually unspoken, and invariably unacknowledged, but that nevertheless drive that behavior. The solutions for the deeper performance issues are usually less forthcoming than simply changing cars or car pools.

But in one way, Fournies is absolutely right: there will be no solution and no change to an individual’s performance without a genuine agreement and recognition that the subpar performance is indeed problematic. And so Fournies’ approach holds … we just have to go deeper than he did. And that will be the subject of our next LQB™.

One other thought: sometimes poor performance is more of a reflection of the environment and its misguided incentives than it is of the individual’s performance itself. This five-step approach can help you with this too, and again reinforces the importance of the first step: as you together agree that a problem exists, you may well uncover inappropriate and counter-productive organizational incentives that have as much to do with the poor performance than with anything going on with the poor performer.

Going Deeper

In the next LQB™, we will probe deeper into this subject, but in the meantime, how can you apply this? Consider a poor performer who works for you; if you don’t have one, consider one that you had in the past. How would you describe the poor performance? What does it look like? What does he or she do that reflects that poor performance? “He has a lousy attitude” is not enough … how is that lousy attitude reflected in words and actions he or she engages in? How is that negative attitude expressed? Your next question is this: How aware is this poor performer of the poor performance? You’d be surprised how seldom they are … few leaders have the courage to confront poor performance, and poor performance may go on for years without ever really being confronted as unacceptable behavior. If the behavior is close enough to the example Fournies provides, start the dialogue. If it’s more complex, ask yourself what might be the inner thinking that drives that behavior … and armed with your conclusions, you will be ready for the next LQB™.


  • Coaching for Improved Work Performance, Ferdinand Fournies
  • Great Leadership: What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World, Antony Bell—especially Chapter 10.
© 2013 LeaderDevelopment, Inc.


ANTONY BELL is the President/CEO of LeaderDevelopment Inc.. Its purpose is to help leaders understand, exercise, and teach great leadership, and its unique and comprehensive framework allows leaders to strengthen the leadership within their organization. Its leadership specialists come with extensive experience and strong academic credentials, and include former CEOs, senior corporate executives, senior military officials, psych...

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