Whether leading in person or virtually, there are 8 principles that you can adopt to improve team performance. Many organisations are adjusting to remote or virtual working and the majority of managers have no training in how to manage staff that aren’t physically in the same office, which impacts on team performance.

We’ve produced separate guidance on managing a team remotely, so for now we’ll focus on how to lead, in or out of the office.

1. People don’t set out to be poor performers

The majority of people have good intentions and don’t want to be poor performers. There are 3 factors to consider before deciding on someone’s performance:

  1. The situation or environment that they’re working in
  2. Organisational culture
  3. Leadership

2. We get the team we deserve

The culture of a firm is shaped by the worst performance that a leader will tolerate. If a leader is too busy to notice or wants to avoid talking to a low performer, other team members will take note.

In general, it’s good practice to speak to all staff on a regular basis regardless of performance. That way, if a high performer slows down, you’re already aware of what might be behind it e.g. illness, caring for dependents etc.

If you haven’t been having regular conversations, the first step is to establish what’s going on. At the moment Covid-19 is the most obvious cause, since we know many people have had problems with things like access to broadband, a space to work, sickness and childcare. You may not be able to solve all problems, but you can fix some, if you know about them.

3. How your team perform is your responsibility

At first glance this seems unfair. Surely an adult is responsible for their own performance? But leaders are there to set priorities, ensure everyone has the information and tools to get on with their jobs and maintain a culture where staff are able to discuss anything else they need to get things done. For example, if a leader doesn’t give a clear explanation of what needs to be done and then creates an environment where no one can ask more questions, a member of staff could deliver something different, or spend a long time trying to guess what is wanted.

There is also a risk that if you tell staff to set their own priorities, they might not have the same vision for the business as you do. As a leader, you need them to follow your plan.

4. If someone is a long-term low performer, then you haven’t lost anything if they leave

It can be difficult to sit someone down and tell them that they aren’t performing well. If you’ve gone through the process of discussing their circumstances and the environment you’re working in, then thought about whether your organisational culture and leadership could be an issue and still have issues with performance, you’ll know that you’ve tried everything possible to resolve it informally. Many businesses rush to consult an HR specialist, before speaking to their employee, which can create unnecessary resentment.

5. We underestimate how much we actually know and how long it takes someone else to do it for us

When delegating a task, we tend to underestimate how much we know and how long it would take for someone else to take over, so when someone first starts a task they may look too slow. It’s frustrating when you’re busy, but delegating successfully does mean spending time creating detailed instructions. If you prefer not to write, or struggle to remember what you didn’t know when you first started working on the job you want to delegate, you could try recording video tutorials, explaining what you’re doing and why.

6. Everyone has a learning curve and no one is a mind reader

As mentioned in point 5, we have to make allowances when someone is carrying out a new task. They may have questions you haven’t thought of, or not understand why you’ve taken a shortcut or used a particular method. A little investment in time in the early stages will save time in the long run and you should see an improvement in performance as they get more practice.

If you’re concerned that staff are coming to you with the same questions, or are moving too slowly, a coaching approach is useful. Rather than giving answers, you could ask “what have you thought of or tried?”

7. Hire for attitude first, experience and skills second

No one can predict what might affect your employees in the future, but you can reduce the risk of low performance by getting the hiring process right. Companies tend to focus on the qualifications and experience that a potential employee has, but it’s important that their values are aligned with your business. For example, one business may value creative problem-solvers, while another needs people to solve problems by following set processes.

8. Making it always safe to talk to you is what makes a great people manager

Everything is tied together by communication. Leaders need to know what’s going on and what might affect productivity, not just what the output is. Two things that are highly effective, but often forgotten are:

Know when to apologise – if you see something’s gone wrong due to unclear communication, it’s helpful to say “I could have been clearer”. It emphasises that you’re open to answering questions where instructions aren’t clear.

Praise where it’s due – recognising good performance publicly encourages the rest of the team and keeps everyone motivated.

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