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Underperformance: Three Basic Causes

What do you do when employees are not living up to their potential? Or simply not meeting the most basic expectations? “Coach them up, or out” is a common refrain among leaders pressured to get results. This post will focus primarily on how to remediate the situation rather than discipline the employee. Discipline and termination are certainly important options and I may dedicate a future post to handling that process humanely and in a way that limits liability.

One quick note about performance that applies any time, and especially this year. Dealing with performance problems is difficult for leaders and employees. I encourage leaders and employees to always offer each other grace. Many of our responsibilities have increased while our capacity has decreased. Be kind to yourself and others. Assume positive intent. Work together to improve and achieve success.

In simple terms, underperformance can mean two things:

  • The employee is not meeting the basic expectations of the role. These are employees you might refer to as poor performers. They simply are not executing effectively.

  • The employee is not living up to his or her potential. Employees who may be effectively meeting objectives, but you see they have the potential to achieve more than what you observe.

Both situations can result from similar underlying reasons and likewise, have similar solutions. We will address three general reasons for underperformance and then share a few ideas about what to do about it.

Why Employees Underperform

  1. Motivation: The employee is capable of more but is not consistently putting in the effort. Motivation may be influenced by a variety of factors within and outside their control such as general disinterest/apathy or difficult life situations (e.g., COVID-19).

  2. Ability: The employee is highly motivated, but his or her efforts do not produce the desired results. He or she may lack sufficient ability/competence to meet (or exceed) the expectations that you set for them. In some cases, this may mean you may be over-estimating the employee’s potential in their current role.

  3. Environment: The employee could be highly motivated and capable, but the environment does not support reaching her or his full potential. For example, there could be organizational roadblocks related to tools/resources necessary for success or the overall culture/climate could undermine performance. Negative organizational cultures/climates will often affect performance through diminished motivation and ability as well.

What can you do about it?

Here are a few basic ideas for addressing underperformance that do not necessarily require extensive time and resource costs. I hope you find them helpful and find ways to adjust them to fit your specific situations. Please let us know if we can help with that.

  • Pay attention to sudden changes in performance. A sudden decline in performance can be a great indication that the employee is dealing with a problem at home or work. Schedule time to speak to the employee and discuss what might be going on and how you and the team can provide support.

  • Pay attention to gradual changes in performance. Gradual declines in performance can signal concerns worth exploring. For example, the role could have changed over time and no longer fits the employee’s abilities or interests. Again, take time to explore what is going on with the employee. Even simple problems neglected over time can grow to be major ones.

  • Clarify expectations and relevance. Ensure the employee clearly understands your expectations and how they relate to the organization’s success. It can be easy for employees to “phone-it-in” on tasks for which they do not consider important. Clarifying expectations can help prioritize their responsibilities.

  • Leverage their abilities and interests. With hiring and talent planning, ensure you match employees and new hires with positions that leverage their strengths and interests. In doing so, be mindful about not pigeon-holing employees and limiting their opportunities to develop new skills and expertise. Employees are more likely to stay with organizations that offer development opportunities (even if promotion opportunities are scarce).

  • Review access to the necessary tools and resources. Conceptualize tools and resources broadly to include office equipment, manpower, or even training. Make it a point to discuss resource needs with your team(s). Are they adequately equipped to knock it out of the park for you? Many organizations attempt to do more with less and it is important to acknowledge the impact this can have on employee performance.

  • Employees, take ownership of your role in the equation. Your leaders cannot support you if you do not communicate with them. Let them know if something is affecting your ability to perform before it becomes a problem. It has been my experience that leaders are more willing to offer support than employees assume. Additionally, bringing any challenges up ahead of time means they can be proactive and recruit potential support from other team members. Also, remember, you are there for a reason. Your contributions are important to you and the organization’s success.

These recommendations typically rely upon an open and trusting relationship between employees and their leaders. How do you build this trusting relationship? Well, one way is to follow through on the suggestions above. They help emphasize the employee is important and valued beyond their ability to produce for your organization while also addressing the organization’s needs.

We would love to hear your thoughts. Please share any additional insights/ideas in the comments below. Would you like to explore the topic further? Let us know how we can help.


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