Difficult Conversations: Managing Staff Performance

Honest discussions about poor performance may be difficult, but they are necessary for managers in higher education, writes Ellen de Graffenreid.

April 3, 2018
Stock image of a performance appraisal sheet.

It is common for college and university leaders to refer to students, alumni, faculty and staff members as “the (insert institutional name here) family.” That may be why we have such a difficult time pointing out poor job performance and workplace dysfunction. After all, we don’t choose our families, we tend to avoid hot-button issues in the interest of family harmony and the behavior of various family members can be dismissed as, “Oh, that’s just how they are.”

The problem with the family metaphor is that it can -- and does -- lead to some extraordinary examples of workplace dysfunction. Take these scenarios:

  • A manager refers to their team members in terms that are clearly unacceptable under the university’s nondiscrimination policy. He also takes two hours out of the workday three times a week -- in addition to normal lunch and break periods -- to exercise, and he leaves three hours early one day each week to accomplish personal grocery shopping. Yet his supervisor is told that disciplinary action is unwise because the manager is a member of the same place of worship as the senior leadership of the college.
  • A leader of a highly visible and politically sensitive program, and tasked with managing budgets and personnel for a large grant, arrives at work each day at 10:30 a.m. and leaves by 2:30 p.m. -- having taken an hour for lunch. Unclear reporting lines have several associate deans discussing how to manage the issue.
  • A development officer consistently pushes her primary work tasks to lower-level staff members who don’t report to her yet claims credit for gifts and results that she had no part of. The individual constantly demands that colleagues deliver information for time-sensitive projects that is readily available on the organization’s website, which she refuses to access. Her claim to leadership of key donor relationships means that her manager does nothing, resulting in poor organizational morale.

Those are just three of many examples I observed over my professional career -- with details changed to preserve anonymity -- where college and university staff members are allowed to perform poorly for so long that it becomes normalized. While the details of each situation are distinct, when long-term performance problems persist and create organizational dysfunction, you’ll find some common dynamics that can be a by-product of higher education workplace culture.

One is that academic freedom as a cultural value can be extended to staff members in ways that makes managers reluctant to set expectations, manage performance problems or demand results. That can be particularly true when faculty members are managing staff and default to the peer-to-peer relationship that they are accustomed to in working with their colleagues. It can also happen when reporting lines are unclear: a variant of the “if it is not somebody’s job, it’s nobody’s job” problem. I have seen that dynamic lead to poor performance ranging from presenteeism (where staff members show up but accomplish the bare minimum) or unchecked absenteeism to direct insubordination. That can be particularly egregious when a person in a staff role holds an academic credential. The infusion of academic freedom into workplace culture can also lead to a “personalities over performance” mind-set. Antisocial behavior or poor work performance becomes part of someone’s “quirks,” and everyone just works around them -- to the detriment of the institutions as a whole.

Reluctance to have tough performance conversations can also be a by-product of lack of resources. Few higher education settings have adequate resources to do everything well. Faculty and staff members are often asked to do more with less, and that situation provides a ready excuse for poor performance. When a manager knows that they can’t provide needed resources, they can be tempted accept excuses for behavior that is unrelated to lack of staff, equipment or operational funds. This dynamic leads to a culture of mediocrity -- “Do the best you can with what you have to work with” -- even if poor job performance has a negative impact on colleagues and students.

What can you do about poor performance as someone who manages teams and staff members? How do you navigate the choppy waters of culture and politics to drive toward positive results that help you achieve your team’s mission on behalf of the institution?

Prevention is sometimes impossible, as when you join or inherit a team with long-standing performance issues. However, if you are not following an annual performance planning and review process for some “historical reason,” you need to dig out your institution’s policy and follow it. Written plans clarify expectations on both sides and can set standards such as “Your performance evaluation will not only be based on your fund-raising totals but also on your ability to cooperate with the rest of the team and share credit,” or “I am so pleased that the magazine you edit continues to win awards, but your inability to meet production deadlines puts an unfair burden on your other team members. Let’s set a goal to improve your timeliness this year.”

We have all seen situations where our institutions are criticized for failing to follow our own procedures, so holding people to consistent standards and dealing with clear deficits is the first line of defense against large, complex, personnel-driven problems. When a problem arises, such as when someone arrives more than 30 minutes late on a daily basis or creates consistent interpersonal conflict, address it as soon as you become aware of it. Otherwise it becomes a new normal, the behavior continues, and you soon have an egregious performance problem that might have been avoided if someone had just addressed or documented the problem 10 years ago.

Steel yourself to have difficult conversations, but realize that you can do a number of things to make them less fraught and frustrating. Focus on the consequences of poor performance for your team or mission -- not on the individual’s perceived failures. In doing so, try to critique the behavior and not the person. For example, “When invoices are not approved promptly, we pay our vendors late and they refuse to work with us for future events -- putting our program at risk.” Or “When nobody is at the desk at 8:30 a.m., students and parents calling our office during posted business hours get voice mail, which means when they do finally reach us, they are angry and frustrated.”

Specify the behavior you need to see, and ask directly for compliance. So instead of saying, “I need you to be here by 8:30 a.m., no exceptions,” say, “This job requires that you are here and ready to work by 8:30 a.m. Can you do that?” With interpersonal conflict or professional conduct issues, replace “You need to dress more professionally” with “Our staff handbook says that attire needs to be neat, clean and appropriate. In practice, that means that we don’t wear ripped jeans and flip-flops in the office. Can you do that?”

Team building and performance management is a long game, but like physical fitness or learning a language, the decisions you make in the short term can have a big impact. Choosing to engage with performance issues early, setting expectations, documenting issues, focusing on the consequences and asking for compliance are all short-term behaviors that will yield a strong team and positive results for years to come.


Ellen de Graffenreid is director of communications at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top