Are You Setting Your Underperformer Up To Fail?

Think for a moment of a team member you’re having problems with. Maybe you dislike them for performance or personal reasons, but the results probably look the same.

The typical story for an underperformer

First, you notice something about your team member’s behavior that concerns you. She misses a deadline or makes a significant mistake. You talk to her about it, and then keep a weather eye out for further infractions.

Obviously, you can’t allow this sort of behaviour to go on unaddressed. These sorts of mistakes are expensive, frustrating and time consuming. Your concerns, in short, are real.

Then she does it again, so you bring it up with her one more time. As time goes on, you notice more and more things wrong with her performance. In addition, you begin to notice her attitude sagging. She shows very little initiative and carries out tasks in a purely mechanical way. This is further proof to you that this person is not only incompetent but has a poor attitude and is content with mediocrity, too.

Are you part of the problem with your underperformer?

So, what is really going on here? Is it all her fault, or do part of her performance issues really begin with your leadership style? How does that cycle look from her perspective? Imagine the conversation she might be having with her best friend about you.

“So, my new job isn’t going quite how I hoped it would. Things with my boss seemed to start out fine. I thought we got along quite well, but then things turned sour. First, I made a terrible mistake, and she called me out for it. Fair enough. But after that, nothing seemed the same between us. She kept looking over my shoulder, and she micromanaged everything I did. It felt like she almost expected me to mess up again.”

She made me terribly nervous. In fact, whenever she came in the room, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right! Then, sure enough, I made another mistake. She talked to me again.

By this time, my confidence was at about a zero. I decided that from that time on, I would only do what she directly told me to do and that I’d get her approval on everything before launching out on my own and doing it wrong. So now I feel like I’m just a helper. I can’t make any of my own decisions, and I can feel that she likes me less and less every day. I think I need to find a new job!”

Underperformers being set up to fail

This condition is called “Setting-Up-To-Fail-Disorder.” The good news is that it can be cured. If you have a controlling nature, you may have inadvertently fallen into this trap, and may be contributing to the underperformance of your employees.

It’s a common affliction. You notice a problem and comment on it. You notice another problem and comment on it too. You continue to watch for problems and see lots of them. You continue to comment. Soon your employee isn’t playing to win but is playing to not to fail. This doesn’t make a winning employee situation.

You’ll find that your underperformers performance will get worse and worse.

Read Harvard Business Review’s article on setting people up to fail here.

How to end the cycle of failure

Before you look at your underperformer’s issues, let’s look at yours and fix those first.

  1. Force yourself to look only at observable facts relative to their performance. How are they really doing in all aspects of their job? Purge your emotional biases and be as objective as possible.
  2. Get perspective from a lateral colleague or boss. Ask someone who is observing the situation from a greater distance. Someone who doesn’t have a ‘dog in the race.’ Ask them if you’re right in your observation about the employee. Ask them if they think you are contributing to the problem.
  3. Ask your direct reports how you can be a better boss. Tell them you want to grow and can’t get better without their feedback. Take a guess about what their concerns might be and share them proactively. See if you’re right.
  4. Thank anyone who comes to you with concerns. Recognize that there is a big power differential between you and your reports. You don’t feel it. To you, you’re the same person you’ve always been. But anyone reporting to you feels it strongly. You hold the keys to their job security, their happiness at work and their promotability. Understand that it takes a lot of courage for them to come forward with a concern. When they do, thank them sincerely for doing so.
  5. Be concerned, not angry. Have an honest discussion about your concerns, and frame them in a human way. Instead of, “This situation needs to change,” try saying, “I feel concerned about you. I see these things happening and want to understand what’s going on from your perspective. Can we talk about it?” You’ll get a lot further showing empathy and concern than you will be pulling out a hammer.

If you don’t think confidence affects performance, look at Tiger Woods who went from a #1 ranking in his profession to not even making the top 1000 after his dramatic, confidence-shattering public failure.

In summary

  1. When an employee is corrected for a mistake, they feel pain. When underperformers are corrected again and again, they begin playing to not fail instead of playing to win. Their confidence erodes and their performance only gets worse.
  2. Sometimes you can be part of that problem, inadvertently setting your employee up to fail.
  3. You can end that cycle of failure by:
    • Forcing yourself to look at observable facts relative to their performance
    • Getting perspective from a lateral colleague or boss
    • Asking your direct reports how you can be a better boss
    • Thanking anyone who comes to you with concerns
    • Showing concern over the situation instead of anger

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