The 3 Things That Cause People To Underperform

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by Alan Matthews

One of the main questions I get from managers is how to deal with underperforming team members. Of course, what counts as ” underperforming ” depends on the context but it generally means someone is not reaching the levels you want them to.

I think there are 3 things which cause people to underperform, or more specifically, the lack of 3 things.

1. Clarity

People may not be performing at the level you want them to simply because they don’t know what that level is. They don’t know exactly what’s expected of them.

They may be uncertain about their role or about what their priorities should be. For example, when I used to work in a Tax department, there was, of course, a need for accuracy and quality in the work done. But there was also a pressing need for speed because we were always working to budgets and more time meant less profit.

New people were sometimes criticised for taking too long on jobs, but they often hadn’t realised that this was so important. They thought they should take as long as they needed to get it right. The manager’s role there would be to explain clearly what was expected.

Another issue can be that people are not clear how well ( or otherwise ) they are actually performing. This is usually because no-one gives them consistent feedback.

Again and again, I meet managers who don’t give feedback unless someone is not doing well. Then they get plenty of feedback, although it isn’t always helpful.

Feedback is guidance to help someone learn what counts as outstanding, acceptable and unacceptable performance. So people should be told when they’re doing really well, just doing enough or underperforming. They shouldn’t be left in the dark until their performance drops below a certain level, then given a rollocking.

2. Ability

People may be underperfoming because they lack the ability. So they know what’s expected but they can’t deliver it.

They may not have the skills or knowledge to do the job well enough. In that case, it could be a development issue – they need training, coaching, mentoring or some other form of support to help them improve. The manager’s role there is to identify relevant development opportunities and make sure the person has access to them.

If they don’t respond to these efforts, it may be that they’re just not right for the job. But it’s not fair to reach that conclusion until you’ve given them the opportunity to show what they can do after the development steps have been taken.

But people’s ability to do a job isn’t just down to their own skills and knowledge. They also need the resources and support to do their job well. In some organisations, people are hampered by lack of resources, poor systems, understaffing, unrealistic time constraints and other problems which cause them to struggle.

In that case, they may be doing the best job anyone could in the circumstances. A manager here would need to be clear about where the organisation itself was hampering performance and make some allowances when judging how well people were doing.

Of course, I know that this often doesn’t happen and people continue to be expected to perform to the same level even when resources ( and staff ) are cut. I also understand that managers may have very little influence in some cases over what the organisation does in terms of staffing and resources.

3. Motivation

The other factor affecting performance is motivation. In this case, people know what’s expected and they have the ability to work to that level, but they just don’t care enough to make the effort.

This could be down to any number of reasons, some may be personal and nothing to do with work. Lack of motivation can cause a temporary drop in performance levels or it can become an ongoing problem.

It can arise from some of the other factors I’ve mentioned, e.g. lack of clarity, lack of development opportunities, no feedback, pressure to perform with limited resources and cuts in staffing. So those issues may need to be addressed.

I mentioned above that managers may not have much say in how an organisation cuts resources or staffing. In that case, it is particularly important that managers deal with the issues they can influence, such as giving positive feedback, supporting staff as much as possible, recognising good work, keeping up morale and spirits and being a role model for others.

Personal issues affecting motivation might be addressed through counselling, mentoring or coaching and the manager needs to develop an open and supportive relationship with staff to make sure this can happen. Of course, this doesn’t develop overnight, it needs to be part of the manager’s ongoing role and style.

So these are the 3 key areas I think managers need to consider if they are faced with underperforming team members. They need to be able to identify the right cause in order to come up with the right solution. Just assuming that the person isn’t capable or isn’t trying hard enough may be wide of the mark

About the author

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