Why are your poor performers poor performers?

Most people don’t show up to work to purposely do a bad job - here's how to figure out what's failing to make employees tick



Determining the root cause of underperformance in the workplace requires investigation on multiple fronts, leading workplace experts have suggested.

Rosemarie Dentesano, practice leader for Right Management in Aus/NZ, said a primary cause is due to a person’s skill capability and motivational interests not matching the requirements of the role – essentially resulting in a job/person mismatch

“Through the person being in the wrong job they struggle to deliver on the accountabilities of the role,” she told HC

The other cause is that often leaders don’t articulate clearly what their expectations are of a role and what they need from it. Therefore they place someone in it, but change may occur and the person doesn't perform as expected. Essentially the requirements of the role may have changed, yet “the job has not been realigned to match with the person on the job – it’s almost about structural/job fit and job design,” Dentesano said.

Another important consideration is that often leaders fail to provide ongoing feedback and development. “You end up with people who are poorly aligned but possibly not due to any fault of their own,” Dentesano said.

Right Management’s outplacement program research indicates around 47% of people change job type or function after a redeployment activity, giving an indication of mismatch about skills, interests, motivators and/or real job fit. “People change, jobs change, things outside of work change and we don’t keep up with that with more development or the changing profile we need for the job,” Dentesano said.

Garry Adams, talent business leader at Mercer, added that required skills and capabilities change, so sometimes people may initially have what’s required to succeed, however over time if their skill development does not keep pace with the change their performance may suffer. This is particularly true when changing market demands and competitive pressures mean business success is dependent on enhanced or new capabilities. “While some employees will readily adapt to the new requirements others may struggle and potentially those who were once considered good or solid performers may over time move into the underperformer category,” Adams said.

In other situations, poor performance may have little to do with the skills and expertise required to do the job, but instead be more related to the attitude and mindset possessed by the employee.  Employee disengagement can strongly contribute to a slide into poor performance, where at best employees may set aside discretionary efforts and additional contributions and at worst passively or even actively undermine an organisation’s efforts and initiatives. “While the attitude and mindset of most employees can be improved there is typically a small percentage of employees where fundamentally very little if anything can be done,” Adams noted.

Finally, Adams suggested some organisations can be ‘blind’ to true poor performance, in part, because the organisation’s goal and target setting processes have broken down or because the organisation accepts the objective measures of performance on face value alone or because the manager has hired people who are more like themselves. “This last issue often masks less obvious contributors to poor performance such as the clashing of egos and styles or a lack of diversity of thought and opinion,” he said. 

However, the leaders of the business – including direct managers – can play a key role. A leader has several key accountabilities, Dentesano noted, all of which can enhance performance. They need to tell employees what the job is so that person can be clear on the role and accountabilities; they need to tell the employee how they are tracking – ie feedback on performance; and they need to help the employee understand the organisation’s future and assist in the employee understanding their own future and how they can grow and develop.

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