Dealing Effectively with Poor Performers

Posted On: November 22

Out of all of the tools I teach my classes, this idea for dealing with poor performers has been the one that most people tell me is the most useful. When I was a young manager, I often managed people much older than me. I used this tool to hold them highly accountable for changing their behavior and improving their work products.


I call it The Four Pieces of Paper.


When someone was not performing up to agreed-on standards and exhausted all normal management, training, and motivational tools, I would ask the person to come to my office and please bring four clean pieces of paper.


We would sit down together in my office, telling them that I wanted them to stay on the team. I wanted them to improve their performance, and I wanted to help them do it quickly.


First Piece of Paper

So I would say, “On the first piece of paper, I’d like you to take some time and write out very clearly how you will change your behavior in the next 90 days. How will you show everyone that you should stay on the team, be a valued team member, and truly contribute to the organization’s success? I want you to write it out as clearly, specifically, and measurably as possible. I want your goals to be unambiguous, binary, yes or no, you achieved it or didn’t. No guessing.”


After they completed writing out the first piece of paper with all of their clear, measurable, and specific goals to achieve in the next 90 days, we would discuss them in-depth. Then negotiate them a little, make sure that we both understood them very clearly, and I would double-check to make sure that they were committed to achieving them—then we would both sign it. This was not a contract but a promise between two professionals that we agreed that this person would accomplish these things in 90 days or less.


Second Piece of Paper

On the second piece of paper, I would ask them to write out everything they needed for me as their leader to achieve everything on the first piece of paper. What resources, support, authority, help, assistance, mentoring would they need to deliver everything they had just promised on paper number one. Again, once they finished writing out everything they needed on the second piece of paper, we would discuss it in-depth. Then, negotiate it a little, and both sign the paper to show that we agreed on what it would take to deliver the items on the first piece of paper. And I would promise to give them everything on the second piece of paper.


Third Piece of Paper

On piece of paper number three, I would ask them to write out very clearly what they would like as a small reward, in addition to keeping their job. But only if they were able to complete everything on the first piece of paper. Perhaps it was a small bonus, a better parking spot, a day off, some flextime. Whatever was fair and reasonable in addition to staying on the team. We would then discuss it, negotiate it a little, and both sign it.


Fourth Piece of Paper

Lastly, on piece of paper number four, I would ask the person what the ramifications should be if I did everything on the second piece of paper for them—and they did not deliver everything they had promised to deliver on the first piece of paper. Most often, people said termination or I should go ahead and turn in my two weeks and leave. We would discuss it, negotiate it, and both sign it.


After the four pieces of paper were completed and signed, I would make a copy for each of us. Then schedule a meeting every Monday morning for 15 or 20 minutes. In these meetings, I would ask the person, “How are you doing on the first piece of paper? Is there anything you need from me from the second piece of paper?” And then, depending on their progress. I would either say something like, “Wow, we’re only four weeks into this, and you have almost completed everything on the first piece of paper. This is looking good. I’m very, very proud of you. It looks to me like you will get the stuff on the third piece of paper—superb.”


Or I might say something like, “Wow, we’re almost six weeks into this, and you have only accomplished about 10% of the stuff on the first piece of paper, and I have given you everything on the second piece of paper. Do you really feel like you’re going to get the rest of the 90% completed in these last few weeks?” To which they would typically reply, “No, I guess it’s become pretty obvious that I cannot do this job. I think now would be a time to talk about my exiting the company.” To which I would quickly assure them I would do everything I possibly could to help them transition smoothly out of our firm and look for someplace where their talents and skills were a better match.


In the 20+ years I’ve been running businesses, I’ve only had to fire very few people. But I have had numerous people self-terminate. I hope you find this tool as helpful as I have found it during my career.

If you want to get in contact with me, I’d love to hear from you. Please visit my site at and let me know how I can help.

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