No one sets out to fail. No child sets out to fail in school. No employee is intentionally checked out and underperforming at work. Something causes that behavior. If kids aren’t performing in school, there are three possible reasons: a learning disability, an attention deficit, or an emotional disturbance. Find out which one it is and you can help that student learn. If someone isn’t performing at work, there are only four possible reasons ever. If you’re a leader, then finding out which one it is and helping the person to address it is your job. Your first thought shouldn’t be, “Something’s wrong with Jane or John.” Your first question should be, “What’s in the way?”
Here are the four reasons someone may be underperforming:
Reason #1. Something is Missing. There is something that you (as the leader) need to provide them that they do not have. Arie de Gues says that it is a leader’s responsibility to “create the conditions in which people can voluntarily give their best.” Is there something that the person doesn’t understand about the team’s goals and objectives and their role and expected contribution? (Maybe you haven’t been clear enough.) Is there something missing (a critical resource) or deficient (a process) or dysfunctional (how we communicate) that is hindering their ability to contribute?
If you’ve answered these questions and checked with your team member to confirm they have what they need from you, then keep looking. Being curious about the cause in a change in performance is critical. It’s just too easy to put it all on the other person.
Reason #2. They’ve hit a wall. Perhaps you’ve asked them to take on a new responsibility and they’ve reached their limit in terms of aptitude or skill. You’ve stretched them to the edge of their capacity. If so, you’ll need to teach, mentor, and coach them up to push through that edge and grow. Coaching for performance is a big part of your job.
Reason #3. Squirrel! They’re having difficulty focusing. Do they have an attention deficit? Inability to manage attention can masquerade as poor time management and disorganization. Offer coaching on becoming more focused and organized so they can prioritize and stay present to the work at hand.
Reason #4. They’ve been hijacked. They are experiencing some emotional fluctuation. They’re having difficulty managing something. Is there something going on inside or outside of work that is impacting them emotionally? What support do they need? Offer assistance where you can and coaching on growing their emotional intelligence so they can better self-regulate and self-manage.
Leadership that goes beyond usual and ordinary gets people to willingly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly engage and contribute. That means helping those who work for us or with us ask and answer, “What’s in the way?” and “How can we address and overcome that barrier?”
By the way, Reason #1 is first because 99.9% of the time, it is a person’s manager and the way that manager leads that is the reason for low engagement and underperformance. We have to own that. Notice also that regardless of which reason it is, the responsibility is yours to assist your team member in overcoming the external or internal barrier.