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HR Intervention: What to do When a Top Performer Starts “Breaking Bad”

It’s a scenario that often starts with denial, turns into dismay, and then winds up in disaster: a top performer who once set the standard has “broken bad”. They show up late – or sometimes not at all. Their attitude is cynical, their actions are inconsiderate, their communication is hostile, their work is flawed, and worst of all: they pull colleagues down with them.

Obviously, there’s something happening behind the scenes. But trying to make sense of the downward spiral is a mystery; one that makes managers feel confused, hurt, and even intimidated. After all, these top performers are like former All-Stars or A-list celebrities. Yes, they’ve seen better days, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

Unless the behaviour is so egregious that it constitutes a safety hazard or breach of workplace acceptable conduct standards, the right place for managers to start is with performance coaching. Knowing this is the easy part. Actually carrying it out it in a way that doesn’t backfire and make a difficult problem even harder to solve is where the heavy lifting comes in. Here are three tips to help make the experience successful for everyone involved:

  1. Identify the messages that need to be conveyed.

Communication experts (and for that matter, political spin doctors) point out that conveying a message isn’t the end goal of communication. It’s even more important to ensure that a message is received and understood.


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As such, managers should be prepared with a set of key messages that they need to get across. This doesn’t mean that the employee must agree with all of them; in fact, there’s a very good chance they won’t. But the employee must acknowledge receipt. Otherwise, there’s no communication. And without communication, coaching isn’t possible.

  1. Be prepared for pushback.

As noted above, even if an employee is aware that he or she is under-performing, the conversation isn’t going to be warm and friendly; at least not at first. However, while managers shouldn’t needlessly escalate the situation (i.e. they shouldn’t be baited into saying or doing something they’ll regret!), they should nevertheless be firm and prepared for pushback.

For example, they should have a solid and appropriate answer to questions like “who complained about me?”, “are you trying to fire me?”, and “why am I getting singled out?” and so on. And while we can’t provide ready-made answers to these questions since they must be based on the specifics of each situation, we can advise managers to repeatedly emphasize that this is about coaching. That is, the goal of the organization (which the manager is representing) is to help the employee get back on track.

  1. Be ready with Plan B.

If all goes well, then the performance coaching process will be successful, and the employee will be on their way to redemption. Unfortunately, things don’t always go well. It’s possible that the situation will worsen, and performance coaching will no longer be a suitable response.

If that happens, managers need to have a pre-approved and ready-to-go Plan B in place, which will likely include a formal written warning, and specifics on what must be changed and by when in order to maintain the employment relationship. Obviously, this must be handled very carefully, and managers must ensure that their activities are in full compliance with prevailing policy, regulations and legislation. Expert advice is highly recommended here.

Learn More

To learn more about performance coaching – both for employees who are on track, and those who are a cause for concern — contact the PIVOTAL team. We can advise your managers and internal HR staff on how to proceed, or we can lead performance coaching programs in your environment on your behalf.


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