The questions to ask yourself if your team is underperforming

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The reasons why an employee might be working at less than optimum levels are varied. Lack of adequate training, feeling undervalued, low self-esteem, office politics or career path dilemmas can all lead to diminished performance or undesirable workplace behaviour; but often these fundamental reasons are shrouded in mystery, disguised by surface frustrations. As managers then, how can we detect the underlying factors behind an employee’s underperformance? It’s a concern, says ‘Performance Management’ workbook author Kate Turner, which frequently troubles leaders. In our webinar ‘Diagnosing the root case of underperformance’, Kate ran through the questions a manager can ask to enable clarity of the situation and a path to improved performance.

Does the employee know exactly what you expect of them?

Clarity and explicitness are underrated and often seldom-portrayed characteristics of a good leader. A lack of clear instruction on what is expected (cited as the number one reason for poor performance by 70% of everywomanNetwork members), an employee can be left floundering, feeling their way in the dark, charging on regardless and oblivious to a manager’s despair. It’s worth pausing to consider if you’ve really explained not only what you want an employee to do, but how you want them to do it.

Is the employee motivated to do what you’ve asked them to do?

Put simply, can the employee in question be bothered to go in the direction you want them to go in? Motivation is the fuel that drives people, without which no amount of relevant skill or clarity around objectives will matter. If you suspect motivation is the cause of underperformance, take time to figure out your employee’s motivating factor, be it pay, flexibility, variety, recognition from senior management, or some other factor.

Could the employee do what’s required if their life depended on it?

You’ve questioned whether the individual has the will to perform, now it’s time to address whether they have the skill. Examine the employee’s record. Have they relevant experience in the area you’re asking them to perform in? If not there may be a training issue or misunderstandings around their CV or portfolio. Maybe they’re rusty in a certain department and simply need opportunities to practice. Maybe they need coaching or mentoring along the way. Perhaps they’re unsure of what skills they need to bring to bear, or maybe they’re clear on what they have to do but are unsure exactly how to get started or keep going.

Have you adequately rewarded your employee for past efforts?

We all want to have our achievements recognised, but often managers will forget to remark on good performance. Even the most motivated individuals can go into a state of apathy if we feel hard work isn’t being noticed by the people whose decisions influence our careers; 42% of everywomanNetwork members have told us that they’ve experienced times in their careers where they’ve felt their performance is of no significance because managers hadn’t noticed whether they’d done a good job or not. This can result in an employee taking a ‘do the bare minimum’ attitude and keeping a low profile. It’s important to create positive outcomes for good performance. Reward and constructive feedback are critical; what gets rewarded, gets done more in spades.

Have you been rewarding the employee in the wrong way?

If you’re sure that as a manager you have been recognising your team’s achievements, consider whether the rewards have been appropriate to their behaviour; nearly one fifth of everywomanNetwork members have told us they’ve been penalised by bosses for doing the right thing. If they’ve received feedback that they need to use more initiative, for example, they will need to be edified for doing so even if the manner they went about it in wasn’t quite right – the trick is in delivering this feedback clearly. Another example might be a star performer being heaped with extra work and responsibility because they’re trusted to get on with it. If their efforts become taken for granted or their workload becomes unmanageable, apathy may creep in.

If the person is demonstrating undesirable behaviours, does it really matter?

If the undesirable behaviour the employee is demonstrating is more about their personality and values than their productivity or performance, question whether there’s really a problem at all. As leaders there are some aspects of an employee’s working style we just have to live with. Often, of course, the behaviours are important – when they’re detrimental to team harmony for example. In that situation a useful exercise is to list the undesirable behaviours and offer for each a concrete examples of a ‘desirable future behaviour’ you’d like them to demonstrate in the same situation.

Is there a bigger problem with their role or your organisation?

If you’ve worked through the above elements and yet problems persist, consider whether the employee’s job itself is badly designed and in need of restructuring. For all sorts of reasons a job can become unmanageable; it may have been inherited from another department or period which is no longer in alignment with new technologies, teams or changing cultures. Get the employee involved in redesigning their role by asking them what can be altered to make it possible for them to be successful. If the role is beyond salvage, redeployment might be necessary, or a dismissal process may need to be initiated.

Does the employee have appropriate potential for this work?

We’ve looked at know-how, will, skill, rewards and organisational issues. If examining these elements throws up no clear diagnosis for underperformance and all other influencing techniques have failed, the acid test is to ask whether the person simply has what it takes to turn things around. Again, redeployment or a dismissal process might be the final options if the bottom line is that the employee is simply in the wrong role. Work through more common aspects of  ‘Performance Management’ in Kate Turner’s everywomanNetwork workbook or refresh your team management skills in ‘Developing Leadership Behaviours’.


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