Dealing with Under-Performance


How to deal with poor performance is one of the most common questions the 3C team are asked during our consulting, training and coaching projects.    When I dig into these questions, there seem to be two quite different situations.

  1. There are a very few clear cases where people are not up to delivering the job in hand, and there needs to be a way to help this employee move to a new role or organisation more suited to their talents.
  2. Much more common is what should really be called under-performance – where a colleague is not completely failing, but just not doing a very good job. Maybe they are in constant conflict with colleagues, maybe they are just very slow, more likely it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s wrong – their work just doesn’t really propel the team forward.  Very often these people seem crazy busy, yet actual output is of low impact when you look at it.

The first situation is actually easier to deal with, using clear conversation structures and appropriate HR procedures.  The reason why it gets left is that the context can be distressing for everyone involved – the manager can feel guilty if a colleague loses their job, and the thought of the conversations that must be had can put managers off dealing with the problem.  Support managers in this situation by helping them cope with all the emotion, and providing the best support you can to everyone involved.

The second situation is much tougher, but if managers don’t tackle under-performance it tends to grow and become endemic to the culture.  I have worked with organisations where entire functions are under-performing, despite manic activity and high levels of stress.  Or perhaps that should be – because of manic activity and high levels of stress.   People have come to see activity as performance, and of course these are not the same at all.   To start tackling this level of under-performance, it is vital first to recognise it.  Widespread under-performance is often only apparent to outsiders –newly hired employees, customers, suppliers, consultants and advisers.   If the under-performance is localised within the organisation, it may also be apparent to other teams or functions.

It can be incredibly difficult to point out under-performance to people who are deep in the under-performing culture.  There will be a lot of denial and ‘you don’t understand’ responses.  Nonetheless, until you can have an honest appraisal of whether the way in which you work is effective, it will be near impossible to address the performance issues.

So, here’s an effective first step – if it’s an individual who is not exactly failing but not exactly delivering either – deal with it before the problem spreads.

If the challenge is wider, get help on understanding the gap between how the group might be working and the current reality.

Start the conversations soon – it won’t get better on its own!