How to manage the under-performer

27 May 2016 -


Managing the unmotivated, uncooperative, negative, irritable, frequently absent employee is, what is called on training courses, a challenge

Adrian Furnham

To have only conscientious, motivated, talented peers and reports is as joyful as it is rare. It is therefore, in training speak, a developmental opportunity to learn how to manage the under-performer.

The ability to “deal with” and cope with let alone “cure” the under performer is a major management skill.

The sour, demotivated person can poison their peers. They tend to get “dug in” and deeply resistant to all management attempts to improve their performance.

In some jobs, whose outcome measures are clearly specifiable, it can be relatively straightforward to deal with the under performer: it is easier to persuade a poor performer to leave or improve if you have the data.

In some call centres these days everyone is electronically monitored (number of calls per day; revenue per call, etc). Some even have their chairs monitored (by heat or weight)... you can’t be selling unless you are at your desk (with the headphones on). In this sense one can challenge poor output on a daily basis if you have proof; but most of us, alas, do not.

The fault of most managers is that they look for solutions before they understand the cause.

Many are brought up with the “fix it” mentality of action man. They think of training courses, sabbaticals, even personal counselling. Some try and redeploy problem under-performers in another part of the organisation – send them to the stores, or HR, or catering management.

One CEO had the brilliant idea of herding them all together in a prestigious sounding subsidiary and then selling it off.

What are the classic signs of under-performance?

They tend to relate to time keeping, mood states and focus.

Under-performers suffer from both absenteeism and presenteeism. They like to escape as much as possible and equate being present with doing work. They are also moody, irritable, critical, quick to fly off the handle and passive-aggressive.

They have almost nothing positive to say about others and live in a world of sniping at the happy, contented, and productive worker.

Most of all they lose their enthusiasm and focus. They somehow remove their heart and brain before starting work only to relocate and re-activate them after work. They represent the “quit-but-stay” old dogs of the organisation.

So how does one diagnose the cause of the problem? The answer is no different from that of your GP.

Imagine a person going to a doctor complaining of a headache. Traditionally the GP asks a series of set questions: when did it first occur; how long did it last; what pattern did it take; had it ever occurred before? Essentially they are questions about duration, frequency, intensity and unusualness given the medical condition of the person. By doing so they may be able to determine whether the cause was anything as varied as stress, a brain tumour or hidden alcoholism.

Symptoms lead to questions that lead to diagnosis and thence attempts to find a solution. Solutions may be as varied as warnings and sackings to offers of counselling or training.

Jobs change, they become more complex and the technology that needs to be mastered is forever being upgraded. People have to be bright enough for a job. Too bright and they get bored but not bright enough and they become stressed, change-averse and uncooperative.

It is not a favourable diagnosis but an important one... some people under-perform because they are not bright enough to learn to adapt quickly enough.

There are no easy solutions

Training courses don’t make people more intelligent. In fact they serve to expose those who are not bright enough.

Those who through lack of ability can’t hack the job need to be “let go” not passed on to personnel where they can do more damage. Demotion, early retirement or a lesser part-time job are best solutions. They need to be helped not to lose face but they need work more compatible with their abilities.

People under-perform because they have not been trained to do it.

The training has been absent, poor, too quick, too long ago and/or not supported in the workplace. It is a common problem particularly where there is a change in structure, equipment, customer needs or the like.

Under-performance can be fairly easy cured if a judicious choice of courses are chosen and supported. In some organisations training is seen as a reward... a jolly time at a nice hotel. In others it is a punishment and the mark of Cain to peers.

It should, and need not, be either.

Skills need to be acquired and practiced in a changing world. More importantly the organisation needs to reward skills acquisition not punish it, which just leads to deep cynicism about the whole enterprise.

There are three other important causes of the under-performance, alongside lack of ability and training.

The first is distraction – people have things going on in their lives, which means they take their eye-off-the-ball. It maybe an affair, sickness in the family or more worryingly, some form of addiction – alcohol, drugs, gambling. The symptoms are secrecy (lots of phone calls), poor time keeping, moodiness, increasing absenteeism.

And the solution? Support first; deadlines second. That is, people often need help – time off, counselling etc. but they need to be told there is a deadline by which time if things are not going well further steps will need to be taken.

Another problem is simple personality. People selected for a particular trait may soon be shown to have too much of it. The bold and confident young man might be hiding his narcissism. The diligent, careful, meticulous worker chosen for their conscientiousness may soon expose themselves as a total neurotic compulsive. The agreeable and compliant person may turn out to be totally dependent. The clever sceptic may turn out to be paranoid just as the creative turns out to be utterly unreliable and totally impractical. The excitable, amazing and enthusiastic creative may soon reveal that those traits are simply driven by powerful underlying neurons. The quietly reserved person may later reveal themselves as indifferent and deeply uncommunicative. Equally the easy going may simply reveal themselves to be passive aggressive.

The problem is that people present the best side of their personality at interview. Often one can have too much of a good thing, which leads to problems.

Therapy for difficult staff members may be too costly. After all Woody Allen has been at it for 30 years and he is still not better. Again the best solution is to terminate the contract. People with non-optimal traits can be “managed-back” to being production workers but don’t kid yourself that it is easy.

There is a fifth and final cause of under-performance. And that may be the way in which the person has been managed in the past. The corporate culture management style can and does have a massive impact on employee motivation and performance.

Management is about challenge and support: bosses need to set clear, attainable but stretching goals for employees and then help them attain them.

Goal setting is often done badly – people are not set them or they are impossible to achieve. Both situations are deeply stressful and lead to under-performance.

Equally one may have a very supportive and kind boss who does not push on to achieve, so little is done.

When a person has worked in one organisation all their lives they believe what they are experiencing is normality. Those who change jobs become painfully and immediately aware of issues like corporate culture and all sorts of subtle norms about dress, timekeeping and expected productivity.

Those going from public to private sector or from organisational to self-employment often have a great surprise.

They then, and often only then, become aware of how the management style in their previous organisation impacted on their and their colleagues behaviour.

Normal, healthy, well-chosen and enthusiastic staff can become alienated, uncommitted under-performers through the way in which they are managed. These under-performers need “re-enthusing”.

They need clear goals, lots of support and positive colleagues. They can, as Mao believed, be re-educated for the new order!

In other words the source of the under-performance lies not in the employee but in the way in which they are managed.

The fault therefore, dear manager may lie not in your employees but in yourself.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here

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