Retail Operations - Effective Branch Manager Support and Guidance

Performance and behaviour management is by far the most difficult aspect of any manager's job and the reluctance to 'grasp the nettle' when performance or behaviour issues emerge is certainly a concern in many organisations. But at the end of the day that is what managers are paid to do and not doing so will certainly affect service, team morale, sales and ultimately the bottom line.

Why does this reluctance exist, why do so many mangers back away from confrontation? The problems and challenges that need to be overcome are many and the common reasons and 'excuses' for not doing so are as follows:

It is Risky ? There is a worry in the back of the manager's mind that discussions could turn into heated arguments and that they may open themselves up for harassment or bullying accusations. There is also a concern that team moral and motivation may be damaged by tackling an under-performer and that the team may even turn against the manager.

It is Complicated and Difficult? Performance and behaviour management is not straight forward, it is very seldom clear cut or black and white. It is 'grey area' stuff and often involves opinions, perceptions and subjectivity. As managers feel they cannot quantify and then justify their concerns clearly enough they do not attempt to do so.

It is Hard Work and Time Consuming ? Many managers feel they do not have the time to sort out under-performers and that it is low on the priority list. "It is not worth the hassle" is a common comment to be heard.

Denial ? Many managers are either blind to the fact that a person is under-performing or behaving unacceptably or they do not see it is a serious enough issue to address. There are even managers who believe that it is not their job to tackle performance and behaviour issues and that some day, someone will come along and do it for them.

Many of the aforementioned points tend to be excuses rather than reasons but there are a number of more important points that need to be taken into consideration:

Lack of Training ? No new manager has any previous experience of performance and behaviour issues when they move into a manager role for the first time. New managers often inherit performance or behaviour issues from the previous manager and yet are not given relevant training for tackling these issues from the onset. Giving managers basic employment law training and the company procedures to read is not the 'practical' training they need and is certainly insufficient on its own. All managers need a thorough grounding in the use of the performance management tools and practice in their use. Job specs, probationary periods, reviews, counselling sessions, appraisals and the disciplinary procedures are all useful performance and behaviour tools when used correctly and at the right time. Yet this vital training is not made on someone's appointment, often it is made later in their careers when much damage has been done.

Courage and Confidence ? Doing something risky, difficult and complicated requires both courage and confidence. Unfortunately many branch managers lack both. Even if managers are given the knowledge and skill to tackle performance or behaviour issues, they will not do so without these essential qualities.

The problems and challenges are undoubtedly great and many may see the issue as un-resolvable however there is someone available to branch managers who can help them overcome many of the problems and challenges and that someone is their boss the Area Manager.

Guidance, Coaching and Support The area manger is the only person who can guide, coach and support branch managers in the addressing of performance or behaviour issues. They can un-complicate the issues and help managers build a strong case for presenting to an employee. The area manager can also help the manager minimise the risk of harassment or bullying claims by ensuring the correct procedures are being used and that the managers say the right things in the correct way.

More importantly a good area manager will 'encourage' and give the manager much needed confidence. The area manager is the only one who can do this but unfortunately in many instances this is not happening and by not doing so area managers are unconsciously (or consciously) influencing a reluctance to tackle performance or behaviour issues within their branches.

Why is this happening?

Asking for support and guidance ? Many branch managers are certainly reluctant to approach their area manager when they experience performance or behaviour issues within the team. If the matter falls into the gross misconduct category then managers will contact the area manager (and HR function) in the first instance. But for 'grey area' performance or behaviour matters they tend to keep the issues to themselves. The reasons for this are as follows:

Many branch managers feel:

* The area manager may see it as a trivial matter and not important enough to bring to their attention.

* That seeking advice and guidance will be seen in a negative way by the area manager.

* The area manager will go into fault finding mode rather than helping find solutions.

* The area manager may start questioning the branch manager's ability to do the job.

Many managers have in the past gone to their area mangers for advice and support on team performance issues but received such a negative, unhelpful reply that many were put off from ever doing so again, even when they changed to a different area manager.

There is also a feeling that area managers themselves do not know what to do either. "Bring me solutions not problems" is a common comment heard by branch managers when they have taken a 'people' issue to their area manager.

Offering support and guidance

It is a fact that very few area managers actively encourage branch managers to talk about their 'people' issues or are prepared to probe below the surface to identify possible performance or behaviour problems that may be affecting the business. There are many examples where area managers have placed managers in 'problem' branches without preparing them for the issues they will face or helped or supported them once they have taken up the position. Basically they throw them to the wolves and then leave them to get on with it.

Another common issue is when the assistant manager of the branch is turned down for the manager position. Very few area managers are competent in explaining why an individual was not appointed and give excuses rather than valid reasons. This results in the new manager having to experience considerable hostility and resentment from not only their deputy but from many of the team also.

Why do many area managers not offer support or guidance or dig below the surface looking for performance issues? There are a number of reasons for this.

Unconscious Competence

There is a saying that "Good Management will result in good people staying and not-so-good people either improving or leaving. Where as Bad Management will result in good people leaving and not-so-good people staying and possibly getting even worse".

During their time as branch managers, many area managers did not experience risky, difficult or complicated people issues. If they did, they often resolved them unconsciously. They just acted as good managers should, which resulted in the issues being resolved quickly. Ask any manager who is competent in performance or behaviour management "how do you do it or what do you do?" and you will probably receive a shrug of the shoulders and a comment like "I don't know specifically, I just do it" (Unconscious Competence)

Unconscious competence is not acceptable at area management level as a key requirement of the job is to coach and train branch managers in performance management. Area managers can only fulfil this critical function if they know exactly what is to be done and how to do it. (Conscious competence)

Conscious Incompetence

Unfortunately there are area managers in existence who 'know' they are not personally competent in dealing with performance and behaviour issues and will go to great lengths not to expose this weakness to others. (Conscious incompetence) These area managers tend to encourage branch managers to not make waves, maintaining the status quo and to tolerate rather than develop. They certainly do not dig below the surface in a branch seeking 'people' issues that may be affecting the business.

One of the most disappointing comments I heard from a seasoned area manager when asked why he was not supporting his managers was "I am not allowed to get involved as I am the next step of the appeal process".

A good measure of an area manager's competence is to look at the performance and behaviour of the area manager's branch manager team. It is pretty certain that if they cannot coach and encourage branch mangers in the tackling of performance and behaviour issues then you can be sure they themselves are not tackling branch manager performance or behaviour issues.

Possible Solutions

If a retail organisation needs to tackle performance or behaviour issues at branch levels, I believe they need to develop the skills and competence of performance management at area management level first as area managers alone have the authority and are the biggest influence on branch manager effectiveness.

Unconscious competent area managers need to become consciously competent so they can not only develop others but also develop themselves further. Conscious incompetent area managers need to admit that they are not effective in performance or behaviour management and be prepared to learn and develop the necessary skills. If they are not prepared to do so then they themselves need to be performance managed by the company. After all, Executives cannot demand that branch managers tackle performance and behaviour issues one moment and then not do so themselves when they need to. That isn't leading by example

Anthony Dance is managing director of outlook management development, a retail performance management and management development organisation. He is also an accomplished speaker on the topic of tackling performance issues and has over 15 years experience within senior operational roles. Anthony can be contacted through his web site http://www.outlookretail.com

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