The problem with (lack of) talent

12 October 2016 -


Five causes of underperformance (and what to do about it)

Adrian Furnham

Being able to deal with underperformers is a serious management skill.

Sour, demotivated people can poison peers. They get ‘dug in’, and become resistant to all management attempts to improve their performance.

It can be relatively straightforward to persuade a poor performer to leave or improve – if you have the data. Alas, most of us (unlike some call centres), don’t electronically monitor our people.

Most managers look for solutions before they understand the cause. They immediately turn to training courses, sabbaticals or even personal counselling. Often, they try to redeploy problem underperformers in another part of the organisation.

Underperformers, uniquely, suffer from both absenteeism and presenteeism – they like to escape as much as possible, and equate being present with doing work. Most of all, they lose their enthusiasm and focus. They only activate their heart and brain after work.

They represent the ‘quit-but-stay’ old dogs of the organisation. They can be moody, irritable, critical, passive-aggressive and quick to fly off the handle.

So how do you diagnose the actual cause of underperformance?

Imagine a person going to a doctor complaining of a headache. The GP will ask a series of set questions: when did it first occur? How long did it last? What pattern did it take? Has it ever occurred before?

By probing into the duration, frequency, intensity and history of the ailment, the doctor is trying to determine the cause, which could be anything from stress to a brain tumour or hidden alcoholism.

Symptoms lead to questions, which lead to diagnosis and attempts to find a solution. Here are five questions to help you discern the cause of underperformance.

1. Are they just not up to it?

Jobs change – they become more complex, and the technology required is constantly upgraded.

People have to be bright enough for a job. Too bright, and they get bored; not bright enough, and they become stressed, change-averse and uncooperative.

It’s an important though unfavourable diagnosis: some people underperform because they’re not sufficiently bright to learn to adapt quickly enough. 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’.

Demotion, early retirement or a lesser, part-time job are the best solutions. They need to be helped not to lose face, but they also need work more compatible with their abilities.

2. Have they been insufficiently trained?

People often underperform because they’ve not been trained to do their job. Often, training will have been absent, poor, too quick, too long ago and/or not supported in the workplace.

This happens particularly where there is a change in structure, equipment or customer needs.

Underperformance can be fairly easily cured if the right 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 seen as a punishment. It should not, and need not, be either.

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

3. Are they distracted?

Underperformers may have things going on in their lives that mean they take their eye off the ball.

It may be illness in the family, an affair or, more worryingly, some form of addiction – alcohol, drugs or gambling, for example.

The symptoms are secrecy (perhaps lots of furtive phone calls), poor timekeeping, moodiness or increasing absenteeism.

And the solution? Support first; deadlines second. The person may need time off or counselling, 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.

4. Is this their real personality?

People selected because of a particular trait may be shown to have too much of it.

The bold and confident young man might be hiding his narcissism. The diligent, meticulous worker chosen for their conscientiousness may soon expose themselves as a neurotic compulsive. The agreeable and compliant person may turn out to be totally needy. The clever sceptic may turn out to be paranoid, just as the creative turns out to be unreliable and impractical. The quietly reserved person may later reveal themselves as indifferent and deeply uncommunicative.

Equally, the easy-going person may reveal themselves to be passive-aggressive.

The problem is that people present their best side at interview. Therapy for difficult staff members may be too costly, so, again, the best solution is to terminate the contract.

Sure, some people with non-optimal traits can be ‘managed back’ to being productive workers, but don’t kid yourself that it’s easy.

5. Have they been badly managed in the past?

Corporate culture and management has a massive impact on employee motivation and performance.

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

Goal-setting is often done badly – people are either not set goals or they’re given impossible goals. Both situations can lead to underperformance.

When a person has worked in one organisation for a long time, they believe they’re experiencing normality. Those who change jobs more frequently become sensitive to corporate culture and all the subtle norms about dress, timekeeping and expected productivity.

Normal, healthy, well-chosen and enthusiastic staff can become alienated, uncommitted underperformers because of how they’re being managed in a new job.

They need re-enthusing with clear goals, lots of support and positive colleagues.

In other words, the source of the underperformance may lie not in the employee but in the way in which they are managed.

The fault, 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

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