Why your staff act stupid and 4 ways to release their intelligence

24 December 2015 -


Underperforming teams are the bane of many managers’ lives, but a few simple changes can help turn a stupid workforce into a top notch team

Jermaine Haughton

After decades of watching various talented England national football teams fail to win a major tournament, numerous gifted performers struggling to achieve more than a one hit wonder and “political wonderkids” such as William Hague flop in their attempts to become national leaders, there are a catalogue of well-known examples of able people failing to fulfil their potential.

Such cases may also be taking place in your office with talented workers consistently performing below management’s level of expectation.

Many managers struggle because of the under-performance of their staff, who demonstrate a poor attitude and a lack of motivation. The stories of employees, who do not enjoy their job, doing the bare minimum of work that they can get away with are all too familiar. Rather than the enthusiastic and productive individual the employer thought they had met during the recruitment process, some under-performing staff display a lack of commitment to the work and the company, and spend much of the work day watching the clock.

New research from leading business psychologist Sarah Lewis, the author of Positive Psychology at Work, suggests that bosses can take a lead in solving the problem by looking critically at their organisational attitude and structures to assess what they can do to help focus and inspire workers to produce greater results.

Lewis explained that there are five main explanations for why staff sometimes switch off their intelligence and put on their stupid hat when they arrive at work, including a feeling among staff that their organisation wants them to be passive.

Lewis said: “In an unconscious way we see an organisation as a head and a body. The head decides what to do and the body follows instructions. Thinking is viewed as a management skill. Non-managerial staff refer to this when they say ‘I’m not paid to think’.”

More enthusiastic workers can also be hindered from expressing themselves because they do not feel safe to make suggestions or feel there is no effective way to contribute.

“Perhaps someone was publicly humiliated when they made a suggestion. Or maybe when their idea ‘failed’, perhaps through no fault of their own, they found themselves being blamed,” Lewis said. “A few experiences like this and the workforce quickly decides it’s safer to keep your thoughts to yourself.

“Sometimes the challenge is the lack of a suitable process to enable a connection between those aware of the problem, those aware of possible solutions, and those holding sufficient power and influence to agree to changes in working practice. Without these connections it is very difficult for people to act as an ‘intelligent system’.”

Managers must be honest in assessing whether fruitful interaction is inhibited. Are employees frowned upon for being away from their desks, for example? Lewis also proposes initially-enthusiastic staff can experience a withdrawal of their goodwill for the company after experiencing or witnessing unfair treatment, and opt to take the low risk silent protest, passively implementing instructions they know to be potentially damaging.

A report by consultancy Hays, for example, found that almost half (48%) of employees said that there are significant barriers obstructing their performance, with many blaming their employer for stunting performance, under-supporting employees and holding them back from delivering their best. Less than half (43%) of employees feel that the conditions at work are conducive to optimum productivity.

A further study by advisory group Corporate Executive Board (CEB) showed that organisations can be equally culpable of limiting the performance of employees in management positions. Over two thirds of companies were found to be failing to correctly identify talented future leaders and offering the tailored training needed to allow them to perform at their best, jeopardising long-term corporate performance.

Read the sorry tale of the accidental manager

Sportswear manufacturer Reebok is an example of a major company trying to reverse this trend.

As part of its mission “to get consumers moving,” the athletic apparel brand converted one of their warehouses into a CrossFit workout centre, exclusively for Reebok employees, and succeeded in helping build engagement with staff by promoting a culture of health and wellness within their organisation.

One of the ways tech giant Google aims to get the best out of their employees by giving them a voice. Among a host of initiatives, the company hosts employee forums on Fridays, where there is an examination of the 20 most asked staff questions and queries. Furthermore, the organisation uses its ‘Googlegeist’ survey to ask staff about hundreds of issues within the company including the quality of their managers.

Other companies such as Yahoo and the John Lewis Partnership have also been rewarded for innovative schemes to get staff involved in decision-making at the company and build a collaborative and supportive workforce.

For managers looking to get the maximum from their team, here are four key considerations.

Appreciate all voices: Within a company’s values statement, employers must emphasise that staff at all levels are encouraged to share their views, critiques and intelligence to help make the firm better – both in results and culture.

Don’t be afraid to reward good work: Whether it be a simple “thank you” or an employee of the month certificate, employers can make great strides towards formulating a collaborative work environment by recognising the attempts of staff to come up with ideas and solutions, even if they seem tentative.

Build social capital: Through organising events both in and out of the workplace, bosses must ensure a good degree of connectivity between different departments to build trust and facilitate the flow of information around the organisation.

Use collective problem-solving processes: Having built a united team of employees robust enough to share disagreements, as well as creativity and innovation, bosses must be willing set some problem-solving tasks which allow for collective discussion, planning and execution.

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