Are You Struggling with Non-Performers?

Do you ever struggle with a direct report who does not perform? In fact do you struggle with how to address it most effectively? Every day we at Leadership Platform sit with senior and middle managers on a one-on-one basis and discuss their challenges. A glaring challenge on all levels of any organization is non-performance of a direct report.

Most leaders seem to struggle with what to do in such a situation, for various reasons. Sometimes it is difficult simply because you are dealing with a real human being that you have contact with every day. Even President Zuma has struggled with this, as we all know. He explained to me as follows: “I believe you need to think. If I have got to take a decision, even if matters are clear after the person has done something wrong, I have to apply my mind, because the person is a human being. I am not taking a decision about a bag that I must pick up and go.”

Every leader is faced with this issue on a regular basis. How could he approach such a dilemma? There is a way, which is to first identify whether the individual falls into one or more of the following categories:

1. He does have some skills and experience (technical and leadership) but cannot within a reasonably short period of time (reasonable against business needs) be coached, guided or trained to adopt the necessary capacity, even though he might have the right attitude.

2. He does have some skills and experience and can within a reasonably short period of time be coached, guided and trained to adopt the relevant capacity, and he does have the right attitude.

3. He has the relevant skills, experience and capacity but the positive, can-do attitude is missing, for whatever reason. In short, it is an attitudinal problem.

4. He has the relevant skills, experience and capacity, together with the right attitude, but some factor outside his control is causing him to fail at the moment.

Should the individual fall within category one, actions needed are obvious – move him to another seat on the bus or let the person go, for his and the organizations good. In fact you or someone else probably employed the wrong person.

If an individual falls in category two the leader should adopt a coaching, training attitude and up skill the individual from a technical and leadership perspective, depending on the position he holds. Usually the leader cannot and should not fully delegate this function to someone else or some institution. He should be personally involved in the process, at some level. This sounds simple, and we read a lot in literature about being a coaching leader. But, in reality very few leaders know how to coach and train. Their leadership habit is one of telling and directing, and we all know how difficult it is to change a habit.

Category three may require three phases, depending on the nature of the attitude:

1.Try to shift the person’s attitude by identifying together with him what obstacles are affecting his attitude and blocking positive behaviour. Then, assist him to address where possible the issues by himself, be they personal or business related. Sometimes you need to remove the obstacles for the individual.

2. If step one does not lead to behavioural change it is time for a tough (courageous) conversation, which hopefully has the desired effect.

3. If step two does not work it is time for tough action, which may mean a number of things, depending on the relevant situation.

Category four is a discussion for another time and will not be discussed in this article.

I asked a senior manager in a large organization, where movement or performance is not satisfactory, the following question recently: “If every leader in your organisation had to plot their non-performing reports in the above four categories, where do you believe most will end up?” His answer was in category two and in some cases also three. My next question was: “Supposing this is true, what two skills would leaders across the organization have to possess or develop with great speed?” The answer was – the ability to coach or train, and to shift attitude. And believe it or not, these may very well be some of the most difficult leadership skills to grow. It stems from ones deep rooted belief of what leadership is really about. To be able to coach and shift attitude takes remarkable understanding, people skills, emotional intelligence and an authentic motive of wanting the organisation (division) and the individual to achieve its/their full potential.  If for you leadership is about you and your aspirations only, you will struggle to uphold or project the image of this kind of leader. 

There are great courses out there that attempt to teach leaders how to become coaching leaders. We have however noticed that even the best of these do not easily change entrenched behaviours that were formed over many years, even since childhood.

When all is said and done it is about becoming leadership fit – the right leadership fitness as well. Allow me to use the analogy of jogging for a moment. Running a 10km, half marathon or marathon race is not what makes one running fit. It is regular running several times a week, preferably following a programme and diet formally or informally that will make you running fit. Leaders are sometimes sent on courses, short or long ones, to assist them in developing the right leadership habits or skills, to be able to coach and shift attitude. The problem is that these courses are like 10km, half marathon or full marathon races. Imagine trying to run a 10km race when you are not already fit? Not to speak of a half or full marathon. Is it any wonder that leaders return from these expensive courses only to revert back to their old self – hardly anything changes! Well, just like a sudden 10km race will not turn you into a runner, so a sudden leadership course will never change your habits and beliefs about leadership and turn you into a great leader.

Someone that exposes themselves to healthy leadership principles regularly, almost monthly, weekly and even daily will become leadership fit and if then sent on some leadership course they will most likely derive maximum positive impact from it. They will already be leadership fit and appreciate and absorb the experience so much more.

Add to the analogy that running fitness is not for everyone. For some people walking fit is better, and for others going to the gym works, while others prefer cycling, swimming or even squash. Becoming leadership fit is a personal journey, which is not the same for everyone.

Leadership Platform has a vision of multiplying leaders in order to move our society towards becoming more leadership fit. This is why we have just started a FREE Leadership Fitness Programme. Our nation has a magnificent leadership legacy that we simply have to keep alive. Join us and let’s start our journey towards becoming a leadership fit country!

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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