Helen Bryant

How to manage missed targets and improve performance

When you're leading a team and missing your targets, it can be a stressful time for any manager. You can feel like everyone's looking to you for all the answers, and it can also be tricky to work out what to do. 

I'm going to share four tips that will help you work out what to do, how to manage your team and your manager, and help you be resilient in what is or can be a very stressful situation.
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Read the transcript here

From my experience, we all have times when the performance doesn't match our ambition and plans, and it doesn't feel good because we all want to win, don't we?

When this happens, I've seen leaders calmly refocus their teams and get them back on track. And I've seen teams fragment into recrimination and blame. I've seen teams holding their heads high and working their socks off to address the situation, and even if they didn't get where they wanted to be, they know they could have done no more. And I've seen teams give up.

When we're missing our targets, I think it's a real test of leadership. Knowing what to do and how to motivate and guide your team differentiates strong leaders from weak ones. And for every manager, this will come to their door sometimes. So getting clear on the actions that make a difference will help you cope better.

Step 1 Identify the real issues

Step one is to identify the issues that are holding you back. Importantly here is to recognise whether you are looking at symptoms or have identified the root causes.

It is easy sometimes to see the symptoms, the obvious issues bubbling on the surface, and attribute the missing targets to those symptoms. But it is important to drill down and check that you have understood the real issue.

2 Steps that can help you here are
1. Start by asking others, including your team and key stakeholders. Try to differentiate between a point of view, which may be quite subjective and the facts. Focus on the facts. Keep asking, what is the real issue here?

2. You can also use a technique known as the Five Why's. This works because if you ask why is this? and then ask why again, and continue for five times, you naturally come to the root causes.

What you'll often find if you do this exercise is that as you dig down, especially if there are several symptoms, they start to connect, and that's when you know you are identifying the root causes.

Step 2
  Galvanise your team behind a refocused plan

When you miss targets things have changed, and often you find that motivation and confidence in the plan go down, and as a result, accountability can also slide. People can give up.

Galvanising everybody behind a new refocused plan that still gets you potentially to the same target is important. In this situation you often need to get creative. What kind of activities can you do?

Good questions to ask are How can we? questions, to help people think through different scenarios of how they can achieve certain goals.  You need to be crystal clear on your goals as outcomes so that everybody has the same view of what it is, and then break your plan into steps so that you can move forward step by step.

Involve your team in creating this solution. Don't feel you need to know all the answers and devise a plan. It is a team challenge, not just your challenge. Your team may find great solutions and may have a different perspective from you that may well work and help move you forward.

Recreating and refocusing your plan helps to bring transparency to the targets and the progress against them. Leveraging your digital tools to make work and progress transparent will help create a feeling of momentum that you can still do this together. Having a collective place where everyone can look at and share progress can help, especially if your team are working remotely from each other some or all of the time.

Make sure to celebrate every step forward, even when it's stressful. That further encourages accountability, trust, and a belief that you can succeed.

At this time, One-to-Ones are vital because these are moments that you spend with each member of your team where you can focus on their part of the challenge of achieving the goals, where you can give support, encourage accountability, and help them work through any challenges that they may personally have.

I've already created resources on what makes the most effective one-to-ones. If this is something that you think might help you, then check them out.

Step 3  Manage expectations

It's easy when things aren't going as well as you wish to be anxious about sharing bad news. You have people who want to keep working away quietly and hope that they pull the rabbit out of the hat and show everybody everything's fine. Nothing to see here!

If you're missing targets, the gap can get bigger and bigger as time passes. But more importantly, the options for filling that gap become fewer. It's important to adapt quickly to the changing performance and to keep your stakeholders informed of what is going on and what you are doing about it. In particular, your manager and anyone who is a key stakeholder in your plan and work. So who are the people and functions you have strong interdependencies with?

Importantly, you don't want to share just the problem; you also need to share your plan. You need to be seen as a proactive problem solver by your stakeholders, and this communication management can make such a difference in building trust in your plan.

If you struggle to figure out what to say, it's best to plan out how you will say it.

Your script sounds like this:
  • Reference your original goal 
  • Explain the situation. What has changed? Share the issues, particularly the root causes of why your performance is not where you want it to be. 
  • Explain the perceived level of risk that this now gives you. Is this manageable, or is this very difficult for you to return to? As hard as that is, it helps whoever you share this with realise the level of risk and the severity of the issues you now face. 
  • Share your plan. Firstly your new priorities and then the detail of your plan.

Ask what they think about it because you want to check. Have you missed anything? People from different areas of the organisation may see the situation differently and may also see opportunities for you that you may have missed. You need to be open to that.

I think sometimes we forget that everybody in our organisation is on our side because, in day-to-day politics, it doesn't always feel like that. The more you build these relationships over time and keep good, strong, open communication going, it means it's easier to have these conversations when the conversation may be tougher.

Step 4  Get support to build resilience

It can be a very stressful time when we miss our targets. Step four is to get support to build resilience.

Firstly, for yourself. The biggest message I can share is don't hold it all in. Don't take all this pressure on yourself.

You need to think about who you can talk to, particularly who could help you get another perspective on where you are now or who will support you, or even who you go to have a good laugh with and release the tension and the pressure.

People around you in your network are your main source of support, and as a result, resilience and, therefore, your network is really important to you at this time, and you need to use them proactively.

For your team. It's a case of moving from the mindset of what is wrong and removing any blame. Encouraging an open learning environment. What can you learn? What can you do differently to improve the situation now or next time?

The more you can create a safe, open environment for your team to share what they think and strong learning culture and support each other, the more you will build resilience across your team and yourself.

Now, you obviously, can't do this overnight. You need to work on it constantly, but the more that culture is in your team, the better you will be able to cope with these more stressful times when the performance isn't where you want it to be.

Good luck managing the challenge ahead!

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Hi There! 
I'm Helen Bryant

I'm a leadership trainer and coach. On a mission to help managers everywhere lead better, thrive in their roles and help create a better workplace for all.
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