Why employees under-perform…

I’m convinced that most people come to work planning to do a good job.  I can’t imagine waking up in the morning with this thought…”I think I’ll go to work today and do a crappy job.”  That just doesn’t make sense.  True, not everyone is as motivated to excel as the next person, but all in all, people want to do a fair job.

When we look at why people do less than a fair job, two reasons come to the surface:

  1. They don’t know what they are supposed to do.
  2. They think they are already doing it.

Both of these reasons point directly back to the supervisor.  In my work with companies, I find that most people have no clear idea how to supervise successfully.  They become supervisors by default (they were good workers, or had the longest tenure, or the most education, etc.), and they are given little training on how to supervise well.

When we consider the first point — “they don’t know what they are supposed to do” — we have to look at how direction is given to the employee.  One of my coaching clients recently shared a story of a demonstration he saw at a training session.  The demonstration required the audience of supervisors to instruct someone in how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Seems easy enough, right?  As the audience soon found out, it wasn’t easy at all.   Why?  Because the audience was making assumptions about the knowledge of the subordinate, and they skipped important information in directing his efforts.  In the end, there was bread and pb&j, but the process was extremely messy and the end product didn’t look anything like they expected.  Who was to blame? 

Too often we use vague language in giving direction.  “Do your best,” “put these numbers in a spreadsheet,” “you know what to do…”  We may think we’re giving responsibility to our team members, but we may be hanging them out to dry.  Do they have any measurable parameters to define what a good job looks like?  Do they know why we need the spreadsheet so that they can make good decisions about what information to include and how?  Do they really know what to do?

Delegation isn’t abdication.  Some managers will say, “I’m just trying not to micro-manage,” and that’s not a bad thing.  But communicating standards, goals and necessary processes isn’t micro-managing.  It’s just managing.

Then we come to point number 2– “they think they are already doing it.”  Many employees don’t know that they are under-performing.  If we didn’t set good standards in the first phase, they can’t possibly know if they are meeting our “unstated” standard.  But even when we think standards are clear, our hesitancy to enforce them makes them seem like suggestions instead of standards. 

Take your company’s required start time, for example.  If the policy says employees must report to work at 8:00, that means 8:00, right?  But Sam comes in at 8:05 regularly, and no one ever says anything.  It’s “close enough,” right?  So Jo comes in at 8:15.  She figures she’ll skip the coffee pot, so the real start time will be about the same.  That’s all that matters, right?  If you ask these two how often they are late for work, they will likely say “never.”  When the truth according to the written standard is — “everyday.”

If employees aren’t given specific feedback, they may not realize they are under-performing.  The supervisor may be fuming under the collar because nobody reports to work on time, but if the standard isn’t specifically communicated and reinforced, nothing will change and the frustration will be for naught.  Better to have a conversation with Jo and Sam to let them know that they need to report promptly at 8:00 and be at their desks ready for work.  It doesn’t have to be a shouting match or an ugly scene.  The supervisor simply needs to clarify the policy and make sure they understand, and then ask them to comply.  Most people will, once they know what is expected.  We certainly can’t expect them to comply if they DON’T know what’s expected.

Sure, sometimes we end up with employees that don’t care, buck the system, and aren’t up to the job.  But before we blame underperformance on the employee, we should look at our supervision to see if we’re setting them up to succeed, or standing by to watch them fail.

(Altman Initiative Group, Inc. offers webinars and in-house training sessions on supervision, communication, and leadership.  Visit www.altmaninitiative.com for more information.)

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One Comment on “Why employees under-perform…”

  1. John Ratliff Says:

    Interesting. Just read an article in the paper today about performance issues related to childhood family issues as well, and that once identified, can be addressed and corrected. The article referenced the book “Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success” by Sylvia Lafair. Interesting thought.

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