Employee underperformance: Are you part of the problem?


If you find a team member slipping up at work, it helps to ask yourself certain questions first before confronting them about their lacklustre performance.

One of a manager’s toughest tasks is to tell an employee that his/her performance is below expectations. However, acknowledging the role you play in this person’s success is crucial to setting the stage for constructive discourse — and for motivating the employee to excel in the future.

Before you sit down with your team member for a discussion, it might be wise to look carefully at your own actions as a manager, and how you might have contributed to their lacklustre performance.

As a start, it would be beneficial to ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you been giving clear directions?
    Whether the employee is falling short on a specific project or on his/her everyday responsibilities, the root cause could be that he doesn’t know what you expect in terms of performance. If it’s a project, did you give clear instructions from the onset? For day-to-day duties, is the employee’s performance being assessed using an accurate, up-to-date description of his role? Also, have you set specific milestones for growth and achievement?
  • Are you offering enough big-picture details?
    Even if you believe you’ve thoroughly communicated expectations for deliverables and deadlines, your employee may be floundering because they are unable to visualise how their work affects the company as a whole. If the employee understands how a particular assignment fits into a new business initiative for the organisation, for example, he/she may be motivated to strive harder to deliver good work on time.
  • Have you been quick to address performance problems?
    If you noticed or otherwise were informed that the employee’s performance was slipping, did you take immediate action? It’s not uncommon for managers to wait until a staff member’s annual review — or until a serious issue, such as a complaint from a client, arises — to discuss performance issues in depth. This is a big mistake. Timely feedback and reinforcement of expectations make all the difference in keeping an employee who is starting to lose direction from completely veering off course.
  • Are your demands reasonable?
    If a worker is not meeting expectations, he/she may have too much on their plate. Consider whether you’re inadvertently undermining his/her ability to meet deadlines and deliver quality work because you keep adding to the to-do list.

Sometimes, an employee’s performance decline can be attributed to a boss who is often unavailable or seems unapproachable. Try to create an office environment where your staff members know they can have an open dialogue with you and explore solutions to a problem. When you do meet with employees to discuss performance issues, focus on developing strategies to help them succeed, and let them know you support them.

It would be wise to bear in mind that the outcome of the conversation should always be: “Here’s how we can do better going forward”.

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