At some point in your leadership journey, you’ll most probably need to deal with performance issues in your team. Performance issues can be stressful for both leaders and team members, but they are a natural part of work life.
Performance issues can be a minor inconvenience or may mean a huge team disruption. There are many reasons for poor performance and unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
In this post we’re going to look at what performance issues actually are and some of their common causes. Then of course, I’m going to cover some options for addressing them!
What Counts As a Performance Issue?
My personal definition is that a performance issue exists when a team member is unable or unwilling to perform their work to the desired standard. This standard could be one you set yourself, or a level that is dictated by external factors like legal or compliance requirements.
I consider performance issues to be distinct from behaviour issues, but they are often related. In some cases, poor behaviour from one team member can cause performance problems with others in the team.
Conversely, poor performance can also be the cause of behaviour issues, especially when your team members are becoming frustrated and upset about their own poor performance, or feel like an unfair standard has been set.
In this post, I’ll look mainly at the performance aspect rather than behaviour. However, just keep in mind that performance and behaviour challenges may be related.
You can read more about fixing behaviour issues by reading the post linked below.
The Impacts of Performance Issues in Your Team
Performance issues can upset the dynamics of a team and cause a number of different problems. Here are just a few of the impacts that performance issues can have on your team.
- Wasted time: When people aren’t performing well, work takes longer. You might see rework or wasted effort, which are best avoided.
- Unhappy team members: Performance issues can increase stress on everyone. Team members who are performing well may be annoyed that someone else is letting the team down. The team member that is struggling probably isn’t having much fun either. This can cause increased conflict and low morale in a team.
- Team reputation: If poor performance is common for your team, you’ll develop a bad reputation. This can damage trust and increase scrutiny on your team (and you!)
- Damaged confidence: When team members are struggling, they can lose confidence. Unconfident team members may start to doubt themselves and require more guidance. They may start to show even worse performance when they begin to lose trust in their own ability to do the job.
- Low motivation: When team members aren’t able to meet the standards you set, they may simply stop trying. This can make the performance problems even worse!
As you can see, there are many different impacts that can result from poor performance. Fixing performance issues should be high on your priority list, because they will only drag you and your team down!
Common Causes of Performance Issues and How to Fix Them
One of the easy conclusions to jump to when you see a poorly performing team member is to assume it’s all their fault. It’s easy to blame others, when in fact, your leadership might be part of the problem too!
In my experience, it is rare to see a team member who comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. So when I notice performance issues, I try to look at them from 3 perspectives.
- Leadership: Could my leadership style or behaviour be contributing to poor performance?
- The Individual: How could we work with the individual team member to improve performance?
- The Environment: Is there something about the work environment that could be modified to improve performance? Are there circumstances that are impacting the team member and preventing them from performing well?
Let’s look at each of these categories right now. In each, I’ll pose a series of questions that you can use to try to figure out the source of the problem.
The Leadership Perspective
The leadership perspective is often the most daunting aspect for leaders to address.
Because it can be confronting to realise that the way you’ve been leading could be impacting the performance of your team!
The objective here is not to blame yourself for the performance issues in your team. But it is always good to take a step back and think about how you may be contributing to the problem at hand.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see whether you might be part of the problem.
Q1. Have you set clear expectations?
Many performance issues occur because leaders haven’t been clear about what is expected. This could relate to standards of quality, behaviour or the deadline for the work.
When leaders are busy, they often assume that team members know what they want. Then when they don’t get it, they get upset and blame it on a performance issue.
Make sure you’re clear about setting the important expectations for the work being completed. If the due date matters, then make it clear. If quality is most important, detail the aspects that are most critical.
You get the idea. Cut out the guesswork. If you are clear about what you want and you still don’t get it, then you can look closer at the reasons why this might have happened.
Q2. Are your standards too high?
If you’re anything like me, your standards are probably higher in some areas than others.
You might be really focused on the quality of the presentation, or maybe you care most about the accuracy of the numbers.
One important thing to consider here is whether the standards you are applying are appropriate for the work at hand. The next is to consider whether the standards are just for you, or if they are required for the work.
Let’s look at some examples.
Setting Appropriate Standards for the Situation
If a team member is giving a lunchtime presentation in your workplace to explain what your team does, the quality of the Powerpoint slides probably doesn’t matter that much in the scheme of things.
On the other hand, if your team are delivering a technical specification for the design of a critical life-or-death piece of equipment, it had better be right!
Are the Standards for You, or Are They Actually Required for the Role?
I once had a coaching client who had very high standards about her team’s ability to run meetings and deliver presentations. She sometimes became frustrated when they didn’t speak confidently or were a little unprepared before presenting.
Now I certainly value good presentation skills and they shouldn’t be overlooked. However, you need to decide whether they are really required for the team member’s role, or are there other aspects that are more critical?
In this case, my client’s team members only rarely gave presentations or ran meetings. There were other parts of their roles which were much more important. The reason she wanted her team members to be good at them was because she valued these aspects so highly.
We all want team members that are “unicorns”. You know, good at everything, with all the right skills.
However, you need to make sure that the standards you are setting are relevant for the performance of the team. Sometimes we set high standards because of what we value personally. But not everyone is like us and values the things that we do.
Make sure you decide what really is important, and focus on that to lift the quality of the work. You shouldn’t feel bad that you have high standards. But in some situations, they might not be the highest priority to focus on.
Q3. Are you providing the right level of autonomy?
Autonomy is a huge factor in team member motivation and related to how “hands-on” and involved you are with your team.
Too much autonomy and your team members might feel unsupported or may go in the wrong direction while you’re not looking. Too little autonomy means you’re possibly micromanaging them, watching their every move.
Both of these can approaches can impact performance.
Micromanagement can cause stress because team members don’t feel trusted and may become anxious when you’re around. Being a “hands-off” leader can increase stress because your team members feel like they are “going it alone”.
Make sure you strike the right balance for your team. This may change depending on the skill, experience and motivation of each person in the team.
Related: To help you decide on how much autonomy to provide your team members, read this post: How to Get Comfortable Without Controlling Leadership.
The Individual Perspective
Ok, you’ve taken a look at your own leadership and perhaps made some adjustments. But that’s only part of the puzzle. Your team members are likely to have some things going on that need to be addressed too.
Here are a set of questions from the Individual Perspective to ask yourself to work through performance issues.
Q4. Does your team member have the right skills and experience?
Sometimes it’s good to throw your team member in “the deep end” and some people will thrive in this situation. They may struggle for a little while, but then show huge improvements as they get to grips with their new situation.
However, this approach is not for everyone. If your team member is doing work they have never tried before, or if they are working with greater responsibility, you may see performance issues.
Developing strong relationships with your team and being available for your team members is a good way to become aware of this.
If you are too “hands off”, you may fail to notice the signs. If you don’t have open communication with your team members, they may not tell you that they need help.
Some simple ways to address this performance issue can be to provide additional training, coaching or mentoring. You may buddy them up with a more experienced team member who can show them the way or take time to work with them 1 to 1.
Q5. Is your team member low on confidence?
Low confidence can have a huge impact on performance. If it seems that your team member has all the right skills and experience required but you’re still seeing issues, then it could be that they just don’t feel confident with their work.
Perhaps they hesitate before taking action, or ask for your advice at every turn. Or maybe they step back and try to let you lead everything. These are some tell-tale signs that they may be lacking in confidence.
Similar solutions apply here. Coaching, mentoring or pairing with a more experienced team member can help them to grow in confidence.
When your team members are low in confidence, believing they can succeed and demonstrating your support are the best things you can do. Often your actions will give them signals that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In other words, if you believe in your team members, they’ll notice and start to believe in themselves. However, if you show signs that you don’t trust them, or you’re worried they’ll fail, they’ll notice this too.
You can read more about the power of self-fulfilling prophecy below.
Q6. Is low motivation a reason for your performance issues?
Sometimes the problem is not a lack of confidence or ability, but simply the motivation to try. We may see this when our team members seem to have a lot of promise, but they never deliver.
This can be frustrating for leaders because we see unfulfilled potential and we feel like it’s a waste! However, before we assume our team members are just lazy or disinterested, we should try to find out the root cause of the problem.
Some likely causes might be a lack of reward or recognition for doing a good job, or that the work they are doing isn’t aligned with their future goals and aspirations.
You should note that sometimes a lack of motivation also comes from feeling like they can’t succeed. This might be because they feel like they don’t have the skills or experience, or if they feel like they don’t have sufficient autonomy.
As you can see, some of these likely causes might be related. Working through these questions will help you find out the source of the performance issues.
Below are some more resources to help you address motivation issues in your team. Visit the links to find out more!
Related: Meaningful Work, the #1 Motivator (and How to Provide it in Your Team).
Related: Improve Motivation In Your Team With This Simple Theory.
Related: 5 Questions to Ask An Unmotivated Team Member.
Q7. Is your team member a good fit for the role?
Unfortunately, some team members aren’t well suited to their particular roles. You may have hired somebody who seemed a good fit at the start, but hasn’t progressed well over the longer term.
Or perhaps you are providing development opportunities to your team, where they are experiencing different tasks and dealing with new types of stakeholders but just not keeping up.
It could also be that the role definition is unclear, which can really cause confusion in a team.
Sometimes personality can also play a part in being successful in different roles.
Extreme introverts are unlikely to excel in roles that involve delivering presentations or running workshops. Likewise, extroverts may struggle to remain focused on analytical tasks where they work continuously by themselves.
Note: The examples above don’t always hold true, and we need to be careful not to put people in limiting boxes. I’m an introvert but I really enjoy running workshops and public speaking, as long as I don’t need to do it all day every day!
Approaches to try when your team member doesn’t fit the role
All is not lost! There are a few things to try if your team member seems to be struggling because of their particular role.
Firstly, you need to make sure they understand the role, and the rest of the team understands how it fits in too. Unclear roles and responsibilities can cause significant conflict and confusion in a team.
Next, you can try to modify the role so that it suits the skills, personality and experience of your team member. You could also investigate options for your team member to work in a different role that may suit them better.
I’ve seen some examples where a team member struggled until they had the chance to try a new role. The difference was amazing, and their performance levels often went through the roof!
Of course, you also need to balance the needs of your team member with the needs of your team. You can’t just create roles that aren’t needed, or have critical work being left incomplete. But don’t discount the possibility of flexing the roles in your team to adapt to your team members.
The Environment Perspective
We’ve covered some of the potential impacts of our leadership on performance, and also looked at the individual perspective. So now, we need to cover off the last category, which is about the environment that your team members are existing within.
Performance issues can be complex and there will be overlaps between all sorts of different factors. It’s all good – just step through the questions and see if you can uncover the issue!
Now let’s look at some final questions covering the environment that your team members are working in.
Q8. Is your work environment too stressful?
Great performance can quickly turn bad when people are put under too much pressure. Stress can be beneficial up to a certain point, but beyond that is where you’ll likely see a downturn in performance.
Stress causes people to rush, make mistakes, feel anxious and eventually burn out. While short-term stress can be very motivating, an environment of constant stress with no downtime will see performance issues increase.
Factors outside of work can also impact the stress levels of your team members when they’re at work. A sick child or a car accident can only serve to heighten the pressure we feel in the workplace.
What to try if your team members are under stress
Once again, being available to support your team and maintaining open communication will help you to monitor the situation. If you notice significant differences in behaviour from one week to the next, it might be worth starting a conversation about stress levels and workload.
In general, people are consistent with how they behave, unless something is wrong. If you are familiar with the mannerisms and attitudes of the people in your team, you’ll start to pick up any changes.
And as we touched on earlier, developing trust is key. Your team is far more likely to inform you about what’s happening if the team members trust you.
You can also try:
- Redistributing the workload of your team members, to ease the pressure on one person
- Making sure priorities are clear, so team members don’t try to do everything at once; and
- Adjusting the resourcing in your team, to build capacity where you need it.
Below are a few more resources to help you sort out your stressed team. Remember that not all work is created equal… make sure you’re focusing on the right things and try to ditch the rest!
Related: Too Many Priorities: What to Do When You’re Asked to Do It All.
Related: Do You Have An Effective Team, or Are You Focused on Busywork?
Related: How to Use Work Pressure to Help Your Team Thrive.
Q9. Are team dynamics causing your performance issues?
Team dynamics can cause significant performance issues. If your team members aren’t getting along, you’re in for trouble.
Team conflict can cause communication issues or have “cliques” forming which can divide a team. However, leaders who fail to fix performance issues (the whole point of this post) will also see an increase in conflict as team members lose respect for their poorly-performing counterparts.
There are many reasons why poor team dynamics may exist. Your best defence against this as a leader is to be present, be observant and to be available for your team.
Leaders who are often absent or unavailable may fail to notice the interactions within their team, and be blissfully aware of what is happening! Over time, poor team dynamics can spiral into damaged relationships and a toxic work environment, which should be avoided at all costs!
Below are some more resources to help you identify issues with your team dynamics.
Q10. Are there consequences for performance issues?
One thing I’ve noticed in many workplaces is that they are often “consequence-free environments”. That means people can perform poorly and nothing happens!
If your team members perform poorly and there are no consequences, this is a recipe for mediocrity. Many people will simply put in the bare minimum of effort if there are no ramifications.
This doesn’t mean that you need to punish everyone. The key is that your team knows that you’re watching, and you notice poor performance. An example of a consequence might be simply providing feedback about what could be improved, or letting a team member know they didn’t meet the standard.
If things don’t improve, you may try stronger consequences, but in many cases they aren’t needed. Your team members often just need support, to be held accountable and to understand the rules of your team.
The Last Word on Performance Issues
There are many ideas here for you to address performance issues in your team. Here are three final very important points to take away from this post.
- Performance issues don’t go away by themselves. If you are reading this, that’s a good start. But now, you need to start taking action to understand the problems and address them.
- Try an approach, monitor and reassess. Performance issues can be complex. You may need to try different tactics, see what works and what doesn’t. One size doesn’t fit all – think of yourself like a scientist, experimenting to see what works in your team.
- Know when enough is enough. I like taking an improvement mindset to performance issues. This means trying to help people improve and perform at their best. Sometimes, however, you need to say “enough is enough” and move on to stronger measures. Monitor the situation and decide when it’s time to get more serious.
Performance issues are always tricky and can be uncomfortable to solve. There won’t always be an elegant solution, but I have faith in you to solve them in your team!
These are key aspects to improving performance, so buy it here today.
What do you think? Are there any other questions to consider to address performance issues? Share your experiences in the comments below, or in the Thoughtful Leader forum!