During a recent conference, I was approached by the executive of an organization who was having difficulty dealing with supervisors who were unwilling to confront the nonperformance of employees they supervise. I mentioned to him that I had written a column on that topic a few years ago and discussing the contents of the column with him, he asked if I might rerun that column. Here is the column as it appeared in the July, 2012 issue of The MBA Dispatch.

In response to my article, “Letting a Corrections Employee Go” which appeared in the April 2012 issue of Corrections One Leadership eNews, a reader wrote, “Great article! There is only one thing missing, addressing supervisors that are too afraid to face this tough challenge. Maybe in a follow-up column, that can be addressed. Thank you.”

In response to the reader’s suggestion, this column will address the issue he has raised.

The way to deal with supervisors who are too afraid to face the tough challenge of dealing with personnel issues is the same way you would deal with front-line employees who are failing to perform the responsibilities of their jobs. A five step approach would be to:

  • Determine the performance gap
  • Determine the source of the performance gap
  • Develop a plan to eliminate the performance gap
  • Monitor progress on the plan, and
  • Dispense Consequences


Determine the Performance Gap

To determine a performance gap, you need to ask the following questions.

  1. What is the expected performance?
  2. What is the current performance? and
  3. What is the difference between the two?

The situation in the column to which the reader is responding, the supervisor had valid reasons for terminating the employment of someone. That being the case, the expected performance would be that the supervisors appropriately respond to an employee who was not performing as he/she should.

Since the article dealt with the issue of termination, we can assume that either there had been attempts to address the poor performance of the employee with a model of progressive discipline or that the issue was so great as to justify proceeding directly to termination of employment.

The current performance is that the supervisor is failing to respond appropriately to the need to terminate an employee.

The difference is that the supervisor is not performing effectively and the employee who needs to be terminated remains an employee of the organization.

Determine the Source of the Performance Gap

The second step in the process is to determine the source of the performance gap. In the situation submitted, it was suggested that the source of the performance gap is that the supervisor “is afraid to face this challenge” of terminating the employment of someone he/she supervises.

This presupposes that the person submitting the issue has already determined that fear is the reason the supervisor is not taking appropriate action. If that is not the case, and he/she is just assuming that the supervisor is not terminating the employment because of fear, then that assumption needs to be validated. There might be other reasons the supervisor has not taken action. It is essential that we understand the source of the gap.

If fear is the reason the supervisor is not taking action, what is he/she afraid of? Is it fear of being physically assaulted, fear of not handling the termination process appropriately, or some other fear?

Develop a Plan to Eliminate the Performance Gap

Once the source of the performance gap has been determined, the next step is to develop a plan to eliminate that gap. If the individual is to remain a supervisor, he/she must learn to deal appropriately with employee performance issues. In this case, the supervisor must become effective at terminating the employment of someone he/she supervises when termination becomes necessary.

If the supervisor is afraid of not handling the termination correctly, then the plan will make sure that he/she is aware of the steps to be taken. Practicing those steps with his/her own supervisor or in a training class could be included in the plan. If the supervisor is relatively new, it might be appropriate for his/her immediate supervisor to model the correct process by conducting the actual employment termination with the supervisor as an observer and to have a session with the supervisor immediately after the termination interview to discuss what the supervisor observed and to answer any questions.

Since terminations are not a frequent occurrence but are a part of the continuum of progressive discipline, the plan should include making sure that the supervisor is appropriately addressing performance problems at the lower end of the continuum. The plan should also include potential consequences for performance and non-performance.

In building a plan for the supervisor, you are also modeling for him/her how to address the non-performance of the individuals he/she supervises.

Monitor Progress on Plan

Once the plan has been established, the supervisor’s performance should be monitored to ensure that he/she is appropriately addressing non-performance or low performance of the employees he/she supervises. There should be periodic meetings with the supervisor to discuss his/her progress. It is always wise to remember that you get what you inspect, not what you expect.

Dispense Consequences

Step five is a simple step conceptually but requires discipline to execute. Simply put, reward with praise and potential for greater responsibility, or punish with written warnings that lead to termination. In the case of a supervisor, demotion can also be added to the list of consequences.

Praise can be provided even for minor improvements if it is accompanied with the fact that the supervisor is still not where he/she should be in her performance and there is a deadline for achieving satisfactory performance.

Confronting problem behavior is much easier if you can follow these five steps, in particular, the step of determining the source of the problem behavior without making assumptions about why it is occurring. Most people want to perform well even if they need to be reminded exactly what that means.

Supervisors Who Are Afraid To Face Challenging Personnel