How to avoid mis-managing employee 'underperformance'

Being a great manager doesn’t come easily. It can take time, practice and coaching to help someone develop their own management style and identify how to manage others effectively.

During my career as an HR professional working in-house, and then as a coach or consultant, there have been a number of themes that have emerged around the art and science or being a great manager. And, naturally, there have been a number of themes that have emerged when I’ve been supporting managers on their areas for development. One of the most common, and also one that can potentially be most costly from an individual and organisational perspective, is the manner in which managers manage the underperformance of others.

Firstly, managers are often not quick enough to intervene when an aspect of employee performance becomes apparent. Working retrospectively to address underperformance often highlights a higher number of negative consequences that could otherwise have been avoided. More time is then needed to address these issues, and the ramifications are more profound and longer lasting than if an earlier intervention had been instigated. And this results in the manager focusing less on their own objectives (and other staff they’re managing) which in turn impacts on the delivery of objectives.

But the greatest potential for damage, for the manager in question, the ‘underperforming’ employee and the organisation as whole, occurs when assumptions are made, or investigations are not thorough enough (or perhaps are carried out in a way that is in line with HR policy).

Sometimes, these assumptions are based upon limited evidence, or, worse still, perception. An employee’s punctuality may have become problematic, but is it because they don’t care, or are there perhaps other factors, like their own health or the health of a family member, which could be impacting their ability to arrive on time? Perhaps a member of your team has arrived after lunch and appears inebriated. But are they drunk, or could they be taking medication that has a soporific side effect?

There are a whole range of variables that impact how someone ‘shows up’ in the workplace, and a failure to deliver on objectives, goals or targets may be driven by any number of personal or business-related variables. What if an employee is being bullied? Have they received the correct training to do their job? Are they sufficiently resourced to achieve their aims?

When we can’t see the full picture, the results are bad for all parties. Employees in this situation often don’t receive the right type of support. Or, they find themselves being penalised when it’s unnecessary. As managers, the perception of our abilities and personal brand can be damaged, and this is especially true when organisations find themselves in tribunals, only to lose them because a court decides that an investigation wasn’t thorough enough or didn’t occur in line with correct procedure.

To understand this further, we can think about Covid19. We can learn lots from human experience and workplace delivery when we consider how we’ve all been operating differently during this pandemic. While we’ve seen that, generally speaking, performance and output has remained unaffected by working from home, we’ve also witnessed a variety of challenges coming through, too. (Trying to work and homeschool at the same time. Working without suitable equipment, like a desk or suitable chair. Working in a noisy home environment. The experience of isolation or increased anxiety that impacts how we feel, show up and our ability to deliver.)

Our ability to see the big picture, to identify that there are practical, personal, emotional, mental and physical challenges that affect how we all show up, is something that can make us more resilient in the future.  

And to do this we need to ask, to enquire, to observe and to listen.

We need to ask questions that are driven by a genuine curiosity and care for our employee’s well-being. We need to enquire if the whole person – rather than just the employee – is struggling with something that is impacting them. We need to look for shifts or changes in behaviour, that could be a sign of something else going on, in turn offering us the opportunity to investigate and research further. And we need to listen, to really tune in and listen, to what it is our employees are saying.

And through doing this, we can become better managers. We can become better leaders. We can be better communicators. We can serve our teams in a way that matches their needs, and we can maintain – and increase – trust, a sense of belonging and an ability to manage performance in the right way, in turn supporting organisational delivery while we do so.

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London, EC1A 2BN

Written by Richard Clements

London, EC1A 2BN

Richard Clements is a workplace coach who helps his experienced and aspiring professionals and entrepreneurs to excel in every aspect of their working life, including how they lead and manage others. For more information visit www.clearcutselection.com

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