Beware Being Sucked in by Good Intentions When People Underperform

The term “underperformance” covers a myriad of workplace sins. In the classic sense, it means that someone has low productivity and doesn’t hit their targets, can’t satisfy customers or makes too many mistakes. But underperformance could also be the result of a leader who doesn’t motivate or is indecisive, and thereby prevents their team from delivering. 

One strange problem with underperformance is that we don’t always notice it right away—especially if we like the underperformer in question and they’re a nice, hardworking person who cares about succeeding. But it can also be hard to recognize underperformance when someone acknowledges that they’re struggling in some way. We hope things will work out for them. We may give them extra benefits of the doubt, like more time to come up to standard or special attention, which actually can get us even more committed to their success. But we may not even notice right away if they’re the source of the problem, and blame someone else for the lack of delivery. 

I started thinking about this problem recently when I suddenly noticed a connection between three different organizational problems I was helping clients solve.

Three Examples of Problematic Leaders

At one of my client’s companies, an ineffectual middle manager turned out to be the underlying reason for the failures of a crucial information function. Because he was giving his people bad direction, they were submitting incomplete and inaccurate reports, which led other departments to make wrong decisions. But he was a lovely person who talked a good game and had excellent relationships with his peer colleagues, so it took the organization a long time to figure out what was going on. Instead, this manager’s team members were blamed individually for shoddy work or being difficult, and the manager was thought to be—and believed himself to be—putting in tremendous, stressful efforts to develop these team members and/or weed them out. Even though other leaders wondered why things never seemed to improve, it wasn’t until the manager left for a better opportunity in another company that the organization could see what had really been going on. 

At another company, the project leader for a new initiative had the confidence of all the company founders. She was a longstanding member of the team and had several related experiences under her belt, but she had never led an experimental initiative alone, and neither the organization’s founders nor the project leader herself recognized that she lacked several crucial skills. Project implementation was stalled several times while she learned some of those skills. Since the founders had always relied on her, they gave her plenty of extra rope, but they feared upsetting her and didn’t know how to respond when she mishandled crucial inflection points. Neither she nor they had ever experienced her being in the wrong before, so the founders didn’t notice her deficits early enough to remedy them easily. Plus, she was so used to being successful that she had trouble identifying her own mistakes, and she couldn’t accept where small changes in her behavior could make a significant difference. The project limped along until it was eventually completed—but with a less successful, more expensive outcome than expected. 

In the third situation, a company with a strong mission kept losing employees. The primary owner tried to be responsive to employee needs and even hired a middle manager to help with coordination and communication. Unfortunately, though, the owner was so perfectionist and micromanaging that he undercut the new manager, and the staff continued to feel frustrated and resentful despite their commitment to the mission. After the owner told the group about some of his personal hardships in a series of “true confessions,” everyone was willing to give him another chance. But he was unable to share authority with the new manager and reverted to picking on employees and blaming them for problems he himself had created. Although he claimed that he wanted to be caring and supportive, his behavior mirrored that of a mean, tyrannical boss, and both the new manager and all the team’s most effective members left within a few weeks of each other.

Finding a Balance Between Relationships and Effectiveness

Whether you’re a leader or a worker, if you start feeling uneasy about how things are going, try to take a broader perspective on the situation. Instead of focusing on the questionable individual, think first about the work itself. What is lacking? Have you been straightforward enough—to both the individual and/or yourself—about your real expectations? Make sure you’re clear about what’s needed and what isn’t happening.

Consider what you might be thinking or doing if the critical player were someone else: a stranger you don’t know, someone you actively don’t trust or hold in high regard, a novice, etc. By comparing and contrasting what your reactions would be if the person in question was someone else, you can identify whether the behaviors you’re observing are acceptable or if you need to take action to help this individual be more successful.

Say you’re confident that you would leave your job if your boss’s bad behavior were better understood. That’s a serious indicator that you should prepare to quit, no matter how much this flawed leader may have promised to do better. But if some other colleague were to make the same mistakes and you know that you would provide extra training or support for that person, do what you can to get those things for this person—and then evaluate their new behaviors or outputs with a clinical eye. In whatever way you would hold a stranger accountable for non-delivery—taking concrete steps to train, coach, or remove them from a project—try to steel yourself to do the same with this employee, colleague, or leader you care about.

As an individual, you are entitled to try to find yourself a better boss. As a leader yourself, you’re responsible for ensuring that results are delivered. It’s as crucial a part of your job to help others succeed as it is to recognize when they will not succeed, even with help. It can be difficult to face situations where caring is insufficient, but unless you have unlimited resources, funds, and participants, taking tough action to protect the success of an initiative or an organization is a requirement of leadership on all levels.

Onward and upward—


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