Tackling underperformance: It’s not just you, it’s me.

Leadership Blog  |  15 minute read

Isabel Elvery

Written by Isabel Elvery

Tackling underperformance: It’s not just you, it’s me.
Got someone in the team who isn’t performing? Not sure how to turn their performance around? It’s something we can all get better at managing, and it starts with us.

It’s all about you 

Before you can tackle someone else’s performance, you have to get yourself in check first. This means testing your own opinions of the person in question. Have you already written them off? Deep down do you believe they will never really improve? Even if you have your doubts, you need to authentically commit to them performing well, and believe that improvement is genuinely possible. Without this, their poor performance becomes an inevitable, self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ve already decided they’re no good, therefore all you can see is ‘no good’. Before you know it, anything genuinely excellent they do is put down to luck or fluke. In this state of affairs, their performance has no way at all of improving, your perspective of them simply won’t allow it, regardless of what they actually do.

Secondly, you have to get wise to your preferences. You have them, but you may not know it. These include preferences towards working styles, punctuality (or lack thereof), tidiness, extroversion, introversion, whether they go to the gym...the list is endless. These, often unconscious, preferences, have us pre-conditioned to assess performance in our own unique, and personal way. We translate these personal preferences into our version of ‘professional’. For example; a messy desk = poor performer. Sounds trivial but ask yourself whether they would be just as poor a performer if they were working for someone else – the right manager. Is their poor performance just a ‘you’ thing? or are they factually lacking competence? In other words, would it be possible for someone else to bring out the best in them? And if they could, couldn’t you? Who then is responsible for ensuring that performance is great? In short, it’s whoever is willing to be responsible for it.

Who's responsible?

Is it really possible to be responsible for someone else’s performance? Not just the management of it, but the performance itself? As responsibility is a state of mind, and a choice, it is absolutely possible to be responsible for someone else’s performance. The question then is how committed you are to them performing in the first place. If your life depended on their performance, you would certainly make sure they knew what to do, had all the feedback, coaching, demonstration necessary and you’d be quick off the mark to correct things if something went awry. You would be brutal but dedicated in your feedback. You would do whatever it took. It is then the strength of your commitment that determines how responsible you will be for someone else’s performance. If you’re really committed to them succeeding, you’ll make sure of it. If you aren’t, you won’t.

This can feel uncomfortable, even unfair on managers looking at team members who appear less capable than they would like. It raises the expectation that managers or colleagues must be willing to put their personal preferences aside and go the extra mile for one another. Sometimes sacrificing their own comfort to have a potentially challenging conversation. Or giving more time and energy to developing someone than they’d planned to. Whilst this might sound unreasonable, the alternative is both underperformance and all the wasted time talking about it, working around it; all effort spent avoiding tackling it. Not only this but without learning to commit to the performance of others fully, managers will only ever get the best out of certain people; the ones they have a natural synergy with. The rest will need to go elsewhere to really flourish and the managers themselves won’t become skilled in unlocking potential.

For some of you, tackling it head on hasn’t been the problem. It’s the apparent lack of improvement once you’ve given your brutally honest feedback, sometimes several times over..! In summary, for some the honest conversation about poor performance is missing altogether, for others it has been had but proved ineffective.

It’s all about them

When feedback doesn’t work, what’s missing is the right context. No feedback was ever effective, and genuinely enlightening for the recipient, unless it was contextualised in the world as they saw it. The feedback must be made relevant to something the recipient wants to achieve. Not just something you want them to achieve. Why this is so important is two-fold. Firstly; un-contextualised feedback sounds like raw criticism and will be discarded with likely offence or disregard. Secondly; nothing will change!

What you say needs to be framed inside the things that the recipient cares about, making it possible for them to hear you, and do something about it. For example, you may be wanting someone to speed up and work more efficiently. Try saying this to someone who’s terrified of making a mistake. Without handling their fear of errors, it will be almost impossible for them to change, what’s more they’ll feel pressured to just ‘hurry up’ despite it feeling completely counter-intuitive to do so. Getting in the world of your ‘poor performer’; understanding their motivations, commitments and concerns is critical to delivering feedback that actually lands. Framing it inside their world and their thinking allows them to interact with your feedback fully and make changes that make sense to them. Not just you. 

Embrace the challenge

Managing poor performance doesn’t have to become a drawn out, unpleasant and unfruitful experience. By taking full responsibility for the performance of others you can dive in, unlock potential and develop your own management ability in the process. Challenge and own your views of others. Question; what are they actually doing that I view as underperformance? Is it just my opinion or is there something really tangible and real going on? Give them feedback they can really hear and use. Frame it in their context and be specific and practical about what you want them to change. From here, be ready to discuss their concerns and be committed to helping them overcome the barriers that they see. Even if you don’t see the same ones.


Published 14/12/2017

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