Monday, June 25, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - Dealing with poor performers 1

One question that I often get asked is the best way to deal with under performing staff. There is no perfect answer here, but there are a few practical things that you can do to reduce/deal with the issue.

The Manager as the Problem

In looking at my suggestions, bear in mind that poor management is the single most important cause of poor staff performance. So you need to look at your own management approach as well the under performing staff member.

Catch the Problem Early

One thing that I found is that too often emerging problems are either not recognised or not dealt with immediately, allowing a minor problem to grow into a major one.

This can be a special problem in professional services where people often work individually and in a degree of isolation from others. In more conventional organisations, day to day interactions - work and social - between manager and staff makes it much easier for the manager to see an issue and deal with it on the spot.

One of the reasons why I support (and here) simple management related appraisal systems not linked to pay is that they provide a regular structured way of looking at performance that can compensate to some degree for other weaknesses.

In the meantime, you can find out a lot, keep in touch, by asking simple questions.

Define the Problem: Get the Facts

Most people want to do a good job and be recognised for so doing, so you need to understand both the nature of the under performance and the possible reasons for it.

This may not be easy. Often, managers simply feel that something is not quite right, that the person is simply not performing in the way they would expect. Sometimes people seem to be performing well along one dimension, not on another.

Step one here is to write down your concerns and then test by looking at the facts. Sometimes the results may surprise you. To illustrate by example.

I had one staff member who was seen as creating work, as doing things that were outside her charter. There was considerable resistance to paying her overtime.

I established that she was indeed doing things that were outside her formal charter as laid down by a recent reorganisation. I also found the reorganisation itself was flawed, that mission critical work elements had not been properly recognised and that the staff member had in fact been forced to do the extra just to keep things going.

In another case, I found an undefined feeling that our receptionist was not doing her job properly, that she was away too much. All that was required here was a simple check of our records. This showed a pattern over some time of varying Friday and Monday sick days. So in this case there was indeed a problem.

Take a Deep Breath

Okay, you have got the facts. Now what do you do about it?

Obviously this depends on the nature of the problem. However, my usual advice is pause, to take a deep breath. Too often, people go into see problem, fix problem mode. This can be disastrous.

Take the time to think your course of action through.

What options do you have? Can you address it indirectly by, for example, changing work flows? Or your own approach? What is the fair thing to do?

Once you have done this, then you will have a better feel for what to do.

I will extend this analysis in my next post looking at common mistakes people make in acting on staff problems.

Previous post. Next Post.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - Dealing with poor performers 2

My previous post on this issue focused on getting to understand the problem.

You now understand the problem and have to deal with the individual in question. What do you do? Again, while there are no easy answers, there are a number of practical things that you can do that will make things easier on both sides.

Note that I say easier on both sides. Depending on the circumstances, nothing may stop things being very unpleasant. But you have an obligation to the other person as well as yourself to makes things as easy as possible.

The Importance of Esteem

A very wise Ndarala colleague of mine called Tim Russell developed what he calls the microskillstm approach to interpersonal communication. Tim is an international trainer and management consultant with major clients on four continents.

Tim started by breaking all forms of communication down into a small number of classes. Examples include reflecting, summarising, give information, give opinion. He then went a stage further and linked each class to the effect on the other person's esteem.

Here Tim makes a very particular point.

All communication has some effect on self-esteem. When we nod or murmur mm mh during a conversation, we increase the other person's esteem by showing that we are listening. When we give an opinion, we may increase or decrease the other person's esteem depending on whether or not they agree with it, on what the impact is on the other person.

Because the effectiveness of communication is affected by listener response, the impact on esteem has a critical affect on the success of the communication. This needs to be taken into account in structuring discussions.

I make this point because conversations about performance, and especially poor performance, are some of the most difficult conversations of all since they bear upon a key thing for most people, the way we perform and are seen to perform in our job. The negative esteem effect can destroy the very thing you want to achieve through the conversation. The challenge is to manage this.

So how might you do this?

Know what You want to Achieve

The starting point is knowing what you want to achieve. If your primary objective is to gain information, say finding out what in fact is wrong, then you obviously need to follow a different approach than that holding if the person is to be fired.

I know that this sounds self-evident, but too often people rush in without a clear idea in their mind as to the end-point of the conversation.

Keep the Message Simple

People can only absorb so much before tuning out. This holds in all cases, more so where significant emotional content is involved. So you need to keep things simple, focusing just on core points.

Fit your Approach to the Message

You need to fit your approach to your message.

If your objective is to gather information, to perhaps confirm or scope a problem, then you start by giving information, explaining your concern. Then follow with questions to let the other person talk, to flesh things out. Summarise as the discussion proceeds to ensure that you have things right, that you have understood what the other person is saying. Then at the end summarise again, outlining conclusions reached including any agreed action steps.

If, on the other hand, you are going to fire the person, you do not want to get involved in an argument. The other person may well be upset, but you need to be able to handle this. So in this case you focus on giving information, why the action is being taken, what is involved.

There are a range of alternatives in the middle of these two parameter cases.

As a general rule, the greater the problem the more you focus on giving information, on summarising, less on asking questions.

I am not saying here that you stop the other person talking, although you may need to through judicious summarising. The key point is that, as a general rule, the greater the problem the more the purpose of the conversation is transmission of information to the other side, the less receipt of information from the other side.

Giving Information versus Giving Opinions

You will notice that I have used the words give information as opposed to giving an opinion. I have done this advisedly because your objective is to explain, to give information and then, in most cases, to gain agreement as to next steps.

If you do all this, then you will find that handling poor performers becomes, if not easy, then at least much easier.

Note to readers:

This post completes series 1 in the common management problems series.

Previous post.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Short Pause

In my last post I looked at traffic on this site over May.

I am now taking a short post from posting to reflect, recharge my batteries and to collect new material. Back soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Management Perspectives - Blog Performance Review May 07

Every so often we look back at who has visited this blog to see just what has interested our visitors.

One measure here is the most popular entry pages.

Looking at the last 100 visits, the front page itself - the main blog address - was by far the most popular with 63 hits. This covers those who came to the site direct, plus those who came via search engine references that picked up the main page.

By far the next most popular entry point with eleven visits was The Importance of Demography and Demographic Change - an Update, a stocktake post summarising various previous posts on this topic across several related blogs. This was a helpful reminder that it is time we updated this material.

This was followed by six posts with two direct hits each.

One of our problems with this blog is to know what will interest our readers, given the broad span of interests of our Ndarala professionals. Here the most popular entry points provide a guide as to areas where we might provide further information and comment.

Another way of monitoring and assessing visitor patterns is to look at individual referrals. This one is more complicated, simply because of the difficulty in counting and presenting a varied pattern.

No less than 48 of the last 100 visitors came direct to the site, a very high percentage compared with most sites where search engines are the main driver.

Some 10 visitors were the dreaded spam blogs. Six visitors came from referrals from other Group related sites and especially my personal blog. Three visits came from feeds.

This leaves 31 visitors who came in via search engines. The low search engine percentage is partly a consequence of in-house traffic - my own visits are not counted, partly reflect the fact that the site is still quite new, partly that we have sometimes had difficulty in maintaining regular posts because of other pressures.

Our experience across sites has been that good search engine recognition depends upon the combination of regular posts with good accumulating content.

As you might expect given the entry page rankings, there were 11 searches on various aspects of demography and demographic change. Some of those searchers would have found our material useful, others not.

The next largest group were five searches linked in some way to public administration. This is an area where we have a part completed series of posts drawing heavily from my own experience. There were three searches linked in some way to management perspectives, then came two searches linked to UNSW.

From this point, the remaining ten searches were all individual topics from teleworking to time management.

There has been a fair bit of discussion over time on the importance of the tail in web site and blog promotion and development. In our case, the tail is the last ten hits on individual topics. The argument is that the tail provides clues as to visitor interests that you might build on to attract further traffic.

In our case, individual search terms in the tail included Sydney Aborigines history, Dilanchian, intellectual property audit, steps in conceiving a project, set up business in a new country, group discussions in which management should look in and beyond for perspective, manager expectations for telework, fashion web site, blogging and time management.

In all, a mixed bag!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Change in Australian Higher Education - UNSW's Singapore Problems

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has closed its newly opened Singapore campus because of disappointing student numbers. Apparently only 148 students enrolled in the initial intake as compared with an anticipated 300, opening up a $15 million revenue hole.

Back in April 2004, UNSW announced with much fanfare that agreement had been reached with the Government of Singapore to establish Singapore's first foreign university.

The University stated that UNSW Singapore would be the first wholly-owned and operated research and teaching campus to be established overseas by an Australian university as well as UNSW's first offshore campus.

The announcement of the new venture was jointly made by Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr George Yeo, and UNSW's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), Professor John Ingleson.

Professor Ingleson said at the time that UNSW Singapore would be a major research and teaching institution independently governed and run by UNSW.

"This sets it apart from most offshore universities which are primarily teaching-only institutions. It is also unique in that there will be no third-party involvement," he said.

To be viable, the new venture had to attract non-Singaporean students to study in Singapore. This does not appear to have happened to the expected degree.

In a story on Channel Asia, UNSW VC Professor Fred Hilmer said that the university had anticipated an initial intake of 300 students, but its current enrolment was only 148. And, based on applications for its second intake in August, the university projected that it would achieve just over half of its enrolment target of 480.

According to Professor Hilmer, every 20 students fewer meant A$1 million ($1.2 million) less in tuition fees. So, the firstyear enrolment numbers would equate to a shortfall of A$15 million.

“An intensive review of our operations in Singapore clearly indicates that to continue would involve an unacceptable level of risk to our institution,” Prof Hilmer said.

The University tried to negotiate a scaled down version of its plans with the Singapore Economic Development Board, but failed. According to a story on Yawning Bread's blog, the UNSW failure followed an earlier decision by Warwick University rejecting the idea of a Singapore campus.

The University has offered places and financial support to students wishing to continue their studies in Australia, but this has left staff and some students facing an uncertain future. The total cost to the University of the failed venture is estimated at $40 million.

In an earlier story on this blog, Sandra Welsman looked at the change pressures and processes affecting Australia's universities. UNSW's high profile Singapore failure is an example of the processes she described at work. It probably won't affect UNSW's main campus operations, but it shows the problems that Australia's universities face as they try to respond to domestic change and growing international competition.