Dynamic Business Logo
Home Button
Bookmark Button

Not just a matter of skill: How to spot and address underperformance

As businesses look to maximise output, employee performance is under the microscope – but staff may not be at fault.

In the first quarter of a new year, organisations would usually expect to see staff full of vigour, freshly motivated to achieve business objectives and professional development goals. So, it may come as a surprise that HR leaders are already being asked by CEOs and C-suite executives to focus on underperformance.

With an uncertain economic outlook, languishing staff that don’t contribute to the bottom line are seen as an expense many organisations can’t afford to carry.

On the surface, underperformance does not appear to be widespread. According to recent research from Garner, 59 per cent of organisations report having less than five per cent of underachieving staff. A further 9 per cent of those surveyed identify 11 per cent of their employees as such. 

However, rather than indicating a lot of bad apples in a few workforces, this variance in data actually reveals that a significant number of companies are under-diagnosing underperformance.

Know the signs

Reduced performance is not always easy to spot, particularly in a hybrid work environment. With reduced face-to-face interaction, the signs of struggle and withdrawal can be less visible and back-channelling easily disguised.

In fact, only 29 per cent of organisations provide managers with guidance on how to deal with underperformance within this environment. So even when an issue has been flagged, few know what to do about it.

So, what should leaders be looking out for?

One of the more obvious signs is attendance, both physically and mentally. Poor performing employees may regularly miss team meetings and one-on-ones or when present, appear to be disengaged.

Regarding deliverables, missing deadlines or a decline in the standard of their output clearly indicates a staff member’s ailing performance, as is consistently poor customer, client or partner feedback.

The other major signal that staff are lagging is their quality as a colleague. Employees who fail to work collaboratively or lend support to other staff or who speak negatively to team members and managers about their organisation are unlikely to be bringing their best selves to work.

Understand the drivers

Historically, underperformance has been seen as a lack of ability, a problem that sits solely with the employee, which has led to an inability to correctly diagnose it. The issue, however, is far more complex, with a number of other drivers resulting in employees failing to thrive.

Gartner survey data has found that while 74 per cent organisations provide managers with guidance on giving more effective feedback, only 39 per cent equip managers with the tools to identify the root causes of employees’ diminishing performance.

When suspecting staff of underperformance, there are four key questions organisations need to ask – two of which relate to the businesses themselves:

  1. Does the employee have the required skills to fulfill the needs of the role? 

With responsibilities shifting, particularly during Covid, the requirements of a role may have changed, and additional capabilities may need to be developed.

  1. Does the employee have the aspiration to grow within the organisation? 

For staff to feel motivated to continue to progress, they need to be engaged, valued and challenged.

  1. Is the company clear open and transparent with their expectations? 

Employees will flounder if not given clarity on the objectives of their role, and how this contributes to overarching business goals.

  1. Has the company created an environment that fosters success? 

Consider if staff have the right resources, technology and processes to do their job effectively.

Address the issue

When managers or HR leaders see signs of underperformance, and have correctly diagnosed the driving factor behind it, it is their responsibility to create a solution. 

Rather than presenting the staff member with the problem, HR should work in tandem with management to develop a tailored plan that aligns the intervention with the root cause. For example, if the employee’s output is being affected by opaque objectives, discuss priorities with them, booking in regular meetings to talk openly about progress and potential obstacles. 

By addressing the underlying issue and creating a dedicated course of action, organisations will often find that employees return to performance within six to nine months. 

With this approach, not only will the business have increased individual employee engagement and results, but it may also correct culture and process issues that improve the organisation as a whole.

Keep up to date with our stories on LinkedInTwitterFacebook and Instagram.

What do you think?

    Be the first to comment

Add a new comment

Arj Bagga

Arj Bagga

Arj Bagga is the Vice President, Team Manager in HR Advisory with Gartner. In this role he is a thought leader for C-Suite level management for leading private and public organisations, supporting Gartner clients across Australia, Asia, the United States and the United Kingdom. He specialises in business and HR strategy design, organisation restructuring, performance and rewards, change management, strategic workforce planning, employee experience and often presents as a keynote speaker and webinar host to HR executives at global HR conferences.

View all posts