I’ve seen a lot of poor performers in the workplace during my career. People who are unmotivated or lazy. People who “only work when you’re looking at them” (as an old boss used to put it). People who lie to try to make others think that they’re actually doing a good job. People who are so negative that they suck the life out of every team they work in.
I worked with somebody once who put so little effort in, the only way you could raise any enthusiasm within him was when you accused him of not doing his job. Wow, what a reaction. All of a sudden he went into full defensive mode about how much of a great job he was doing. Finally, some passion!
Why do people perform poorly?
It’s not all about a person’s skills or intelligence as to whether they show poor performance or a lack of work ethic.
Organisational culture has a whole lot to do with poor performance – working within a dysfunctional workplace can have people constantly wishing they weren’t there. Workplaces that normalise poor performance can also have a dramatic effect on how people perform.
Fighting against a culture that you hate is difficult. There have been times in my career where it has only been sheer force of will that has kept me trying to do my job properly, such was the dysfunction of the working environment.
Let’s not let everybody off the hook altogether though. If an employee is performing badly, they need to know about it. If they are not able to perform within their current work environment, then they need to make steps to move away from there.
Otherwise what you get is poor performers being watched by others who are trying to do the right thing, thinking “how the hell does s(he) get away with this?”
How poor performers in the workplace get away with it
Most poor performers in the workplace get away with it for a number of reasons. They are all fixable.
Poor performance behaviours are normalised
“Oh that’s just how it works around here”
“That’s the nature of this industry”
I’ve heard these statements before and they can be extremely damaging. They are an acceptance of a status quo which is dysfunctional and not working. But because it’s “normal”, everyone just gets on with their day.
As a leader, when you let poor performance behaviours slide, you are telling everybody around you that this sort of behaviour is OK. Some people might even follow the lead of the poor performer, and their work will suffer. Others will simply become resentful as to how this person gets away with doing such things, resulting in a loss of respect for the leadership and a generally negative attitude about the organisation.
The hardest performance issues to deal with are those from people who show characteristics that are both positive and negative. “He really knows his stuff though”, is often used to excuse poor behaviour, as if being technically competent is a reason to be able to get away with bad behaviour.
Matrix structures are in place, making it difficult to manage performance
In matrix management, people are grouped into projects to complete work, but the line management of each employee is separate from the project structure. You might have a Project Lead who is accountable for managing the day to day work, but employees within that project team may be directly line-managed by somebody else altogether.
The issue with this is that often the line manager may not be able to see the poor performance directly, as they don’t work closely with their direct report. Conversely, a project leader may be unable to manage the performance of the person in their team because they don’t have direct accountability for it.
What results is a mess of mangled responsibilities, where a project lead needs to convince others that poor performance is happening, before anything can be done about it.
Raising poor performance is uncomfortable
Let’s face it, when somebody isn’t performing, it isn’t fun. Broaching that conversation is awkward and deciding how to do it correctly can also be problematic.
You should usually approach the employee directly to address your concerns, followed by their line manager, and then a step above that if you get no traction. But this will always depend on the dynamics of the particular place you work in.
The thing that stops many people from raising performance issues is the uncomfortable nature of the conversation. Will you be perceived as “rocking the boat” by raising concerns? Will people think of you negatively for “attacking” somebody’s credibility? Is it just easier if you just stay silent, to avoid the hassle? Will you be accused of bullying and need to go through a rigorous HR process?
Why you should raise concerns about poor performance
There are some simple reasons why you need to challenge poor performers in the workplace, even when you feel as if it will create conflict in your environment.
- People are watching the poor behaviour, and they are seeing it go unpunished. They start to lose respect for the leadership who aren’t doing anything about it. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to raise it, otherwise it might just be your fault.
- The quality of work drops. Clearly, when somebody is performing poorly, the quality of the work suffers, whether it be work just not getting done, or that the way a team works is hampered.
- Your own credibility and wellbeing is at stake. Do you really want to work in a place where poor performers in the workplace go unpunished? Are you going to sit idly by and let this happen? If you are unable to raise the performance issue then ultimately, you may be performing poorly yourself, by letting everybody down.
Poor performers in the workplace are a cancer which eats away at teams and workplaces, contributing to dysfunctional workplace cultures and making life just a bit more stressful and less enjoyable. It saps motivation, dampens enthusiasm and disengages employees.
Do you really want that happening on your watch?