Why Employees “Fail”: The Secret That Managers Create

by Leon Noone

I won’t “beat about the bush”. Employees “fail” for two main reasons: they’re in the “wrong job”; their managers prevent them from succeeding.

Put another way, the two main reasons are poor staff selection and poor performance support systems.

In this article, I want to concentrate on the consequences of poor support systems. Understand this. If your systems are poor your people will fail. Sorry! That’s the reality.

Face The Reality

It’s common for managers to blame employees for poor on job performance. The reality is that most poor employee performance occurs because a manager has failed to establish a system to ensure the employee will succeed.

Two Performance Essentials

Every employee must be absolutely crystal clear about two things

  • The performance goals he or she is required to achieve
  • How the achievement will be measured.

It’s not enough to know the performance goals. Both employee and manager must also know how the performance will be measured.

Role of Training

Training’s important. No one disputes that. But it’s not enough. You also need sound and effective systems in place to ensure that your investment in training is effective. Putting these systems in place is also a management responsibility.

The Secret

The “Secret That Managers Create” isn’t complicated. It’s fairly straightforward really. Employees fail because of what managers do or don’t do.

I like to put it like this: “employees don’t fail. Systems fail”. Geary Rummler, employee performance expert, puts it this way. “A bad system will beat a good performer every time.”

If you have employees who are performing poorly, don’t bother with amateur psychology or what Dr. Tom Gilbert calls “psychological parlour games”. Look first at your systems.

A Typical Case

A client sought my help to improve the results of an underperforming sales team. The first thing I discovered was a major systems obstacle. Every time a salesperson closed a sale, the salesperson had to complete nine separate forms! Yes, nine! Making sales wasn’t rewarded. It was punished with excessive and repetitive documentation. We call this “performance punishing”. Unfortunately it’s a common management error.

In another case a business wanted to reduce its inventory of office supplies. They felt that they were spending too much on paper, pens and all the stock standard items that are needed to keep a normal office functioning daily. They decided that all office stationery and supplies must be ordered formally through normal supply channels. This caused major delays in supplying items in day to day use, the standard office supplies. The delays meant that every area of the business ordered more than they needed. They built up their own little internal inventory of office supplies. The inventory cost spiralled out of control. The new system had the opposite effect to the one intended.

Yet again, a poor system created poor performance. Employee performance is usually a direct consequence of how managers treat employee.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw summed it up in his play “Pygmalion” when he said, “the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn’t how she behaves, it’s how she’s treated”. Learner and Loewe turned “Pygmalion” into the famous Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” based on Shaw’s premise.

Doing It Better

There’s another thing managers tend to do which limits their effectiveness. They tell rather than ask. Think of it this way. You have a group of employees who do more or less the same thing every day.

Who better to ask questions such as

  • How could we do this better?
  • How could we do this faster?
  • How could we do this cheaper?
  • How could we do this so that customers would be more satisfied?
  • What more could we do to please customers?
  • How could we co-operate more effectively with – another team – to improve customer satisfaction?
  • What rewards and incentives would result in your doing a better job?

Fascinating isn’t it? We employ people who work on the same things say after day. They’re intimately involved with their jobs daily. They speak to prospects and customers frequently each day. Yet we rarely ask them about how customer service and systems could be improved for the benefit of the business.

But there’s something else you need to know. It’s common for managers to unwittingly mislead employees about what’s really important to them.

Talk the language of successful on job employee performance. If you don’t, you won’t get it. Make no mistake: as a manager, your staff will give you what they think you want. That’ll be determined largely by what you talk about.

What you talk about tells staff where your priorities lay.

Three Essential Questions

If you want superior employee performance you’ll find these three questions most useful.

  • What business goals are we trying to achieve?
  • How will we know that we’ve been successful?
  • How well do we want to achieve those goals?

You need this sort of information so that you and your people know exactly what performance they’re achieving, and how well they’re achieving it. That’s valuable business information you can use.

Constantly emphasizing on job performance reinforces the importance of staff performance to you, your employees and your business.

The Behaviour Trap

As Dr Tom Gilbert has told us for years, “Behaviour is what you take with you. Performance is what you leave behind.” Yet many managers confuse performance and behaviour.

They constantly draw attention to issues such as timekeeping, tidiness, personal habits and a whole range of behaviours. When your staff hear these things repeatedly they start to believe that managers regard these issues as more important than on job performance.

You Get What You Talk About

If you make a great song and dance about employees returning from a lunch break five minutes late, rest assured that employees won’t regard on job performance as their major responsibility!

Blame And Performance

When something goes wrong in your business, look for someone to blame. This is a failsafe method to ensure that employees lose performance focus.

“Poor” Employees

Face the reality. There are a few really poorly performing employees. But there are lots of lousy business systems. Permit me to share two simple “rules of thumb”.

Firstly, employees don’t fail; systems fail. Secondly, the best thing a manager can do for employees is to put systems in place that make it impossible for employees to fail.

Looking for someone to blame when something does go wrong tells employees that you’re more interested in finding scapegoats than enhancing on job performance.


If you want superior employee performance, talk about it to your employees. Ensure that your employees understand what you mean by performance, how you’ll measure it and its importance to the success of your business. And use the experience and expertise of employees to improve on job performance.

About the author

Leon Noone helps managers in small-medium business to improve on-job staff performance without training courses. His ideas are quite unconventional. Leon challenges conventional wisdom of people management, management training & is effective on job performance in small-medium business.