Lucinda Carney is a business psychologist and founder of Advance Change Ltd and Actus™ performance management software. In this blog post she provides a quick check list for managers who have someone in their team who might be deemed an ‘underperformer.’

At some point in their career most managers have the challenge of dealing with a persistent underperformer. Clearly it isn’t acceptable to get them to eat creepy crawlies in order to “Get them out of here!” – However much you may feel like it at the time. Managing someone out of a business can be expensive, litigious and it isn’t fun for anyone, so here are some tips to avoid it.

1. Avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy

Performance is about behaviour: what someone does do; doesn’t do; what they say; the way they interact or how they do something. For example:

FACT: They turned in a piece of work with a number of inaccuracies


JUDGEMENT: They are sloppy with no attention to detail

FACT: They were late 3 times last week


JUDGEMENT: They lack commitment or are lazy

As soon as we start making judgements about the causes of behaviour we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may treat the individual as if they are sloppy or lazy and they pick up on this lack of faith in them. There is a very real chance that we could let our negative perception worsen or even cause under performance in our employee. This takes us nicely onto establishing the cause.

2. Tough on the facts, open minded on the causes

We have the facts which are not ideal, what we don’t know is what the cause is, so we need to remain open minded.

The following acronym can be helpful to consider what may be causing the underperformance:

(Click the image for a larger version.)

The most common cause of underperformance is lack of clarity…and guess whose responsibility it is to ensure their staff member has clarity about what is expected? Yes, if we managers are too busy to set clear objectives and give regular, clear feedback we are leaving the door wide open for the individual to make their own clarity which may not be consistent with our view.

Probably the least common but most commonly cited cause is Individual Attitude, the key here is determining why? Has this person been switched off by you or a predecessor? Is there something going on externally that you don’t know about? You need to retain trust to understand the real cause.

Training can be helpful but only if the person knows what the performance change needs to be as a result of the training. The same is true if the confusion is caused by the surrounding environment. If a customer facing employee with SLA driven hours works alongside flexible home workers there could be room for confusion. People need to understand that there are different expectations around hours for them and why.

3. PEG that gap!

PEG stands for Performance Expectation Gap, underperformance can be addressed by getting into the habit of talking straight with your people.

PERFORMANCE: “I noticed that you were 20 minutes late on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday last week”

EXPECTATION: “The expectation is that people are at their desk logged on by 9:00 am”


GAP: “How can we make sure that this is the case for you going forwards?”

How you choose to deliver “PEG” is the difference between being an inspirational leader and a tyrant, and your choice! For example, it is powerful to use questioning to close the gap as opposed to directly telling the person to be on time. You need to have enough empathy to pick up on a hesitation or to spot if there is an underlying issue e.g. they have an ill relative, their partner has just left and they have to take the kids to school which is making them late. The reality is that temporary underperformance can be caused by real issues but some managers are not tuned in enough to give their people chance to explain. This can mean that you lose or alienate someone who could be a loyal high performer if their needs are understood.

4. Feedback is business as usual

Clarity & feedback is what drives over performance, the converse is also true. Make a point of “catching people doing things right” as Blanchard put it in his book ‘The one minute manager’. If we were all in the habit of giving and receiving clear feedback which was specific, behavioural as opposed to judgemental and timely then not only would we reduce underperformance, we would increase high performance.

Back in the jungle, much of the reality is edited out. This makes it very similar to our perception of people based on what we see of their performance. You may have a rough diamond in your team who feels misunderstood and a little demotivated; in reality they may simply need the opportunity and support to develop into a real gem.

In conclusion, recruiting and firing people is extremely expensive, in time and energy – It is far better to help turn round an underperformer than it is to start again from scratch.

Advance Change has recently launched Actus which is a performance management system, an extremely useful tool helping managers to enhance employee performance by monitoring and settings activities and objectives. For more info please go to www.actus.co.uk

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