Underperformance Is Often Environmental 

Natasha Wallace

Cite This
Natasha Wallace, (2019, September 25). Underperformance Is Often Environmental . Psychreg on Organisational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/underperformance-is-often-environmental/
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Leaders often get frustrated by the performance of individuals. Many call HR in for help, to either get the person to work more effectively or, depending on the situation to remove them from the organisation. Unfortunately, where targets need to be met and performance needs to be optimised, some leaders have little time and patience for someone who isn’t ‘pulling their weight’. 

More often than not, when an individual isn’t performing as they should be, it’s the environment around them that’s the problem, not their will or capability. Unfortunately, leaders often blame the individual for the underperformance. 

Our natural aversion to having difficult conversations can make these situations worse and allow underperformance to continue for some time.

As time lapses, the problem grows, and what could initially have been a quick and straightforward conversation can lead to a more serious performance issue. 

If it’s not you it’s me

So, if an individual’s will and capability haven’t led to the problem, it’s important to understand what has. According to Rose Muller-Hanson and Elaine Pulakos, authors of the book Transforming Performance Management to Drive Performance, ‘a critical first step in managing poor performance is to carefully diagnose its root cause’.

Many powerful factors sit outside the employee’s control, and so the environment they are in can have a big impact on them. The list of environmental factors influencing employee’s performance is long. Policies and producers, uncooperative colleagues, structures that inhibit communication, culture, lack of resources, poorly designed workflows, and processes, workload or tasks not appropriate for the employee’s role – these all play a part. 

Although a lack of will or low capability may be causing the problem, it is not helpful to default to identifying these as the primary reasons. Leaders must assess whether the working environment could be contributing to underperformance, because otherwise the employee may be treated unfairly and criticised. This can lead to a negative impact on mental health. Simply changing the conditions around an employee can sometimes help to make the improvements required. 

If it’s them

When an individual’s will is the issue, leaders should try to identify and understand the underlying problem that is causing the underperformance. By being more curious, leaders are more likely to find out what’s really going on, and often a simple conversation with the individual can reveal the cause of the problem. 

When it comes to capability issues, leaders should be giving clear feedback and developing their people, not leaving them to flounder.

Sometimes employees simply aren’t clear about what is expected of them, and there may be a disconnect between what the employee thinks they need to do and what the leader wants. 

When reviewing performance, it helps leaders if they understand that ‘people are doing the best with the resources that they have.’ No one wants to come to work and do a bad job. Most people are doing their best based on the knowledge, direction, understanding, tools and energy they have at their disposal. By thinking in this way, leaders can assess the problem more compassionately and objectively, and take a more productive and sensible approach to solving the problem. 

Don’t forget about personal problems

One final point to remember is that personal problems impact people’s performance. Personal problems can lead to distractions or be the cause of mental health problems, and they vary in duration. In these situations, leaders can help by creating a space to speak openly about problems and signpost people towards the right support. 

How to help people with their performance

  • Avoid blame – Look at the environment and be honest about what may be getting in the way of better performance. It’s often easier to blame the individual even when it’s not their fault. 
  • Clarify expectations – Sometimes there’s a breakdown in the communication or understanding. Define goals, be clear about the scope of the role and describe your expectations about the outcomes you’re expecting.
  • Provide support – Don’t expect employees to perform well all of the time. If something doesn’t seem right, show compassion, use coaching to help them and give them the space to make improvements. 

Leadership myths

  • People tend to know when they’re not doing a good enough job.
  • Poor performance is always down to the individual.

Get conscious

When someone isn’t doing what you need from them, do you automatically blame them? Do you even look at the environment they are working in? Do you ever ask the team what they need to work more effectively (what’s blocking the best performance)? Do you default to blame when someone isn’t working well? Do you work in ‘partnership’ with the individual to solve the problem? Do you see your team’s performance as a reflection of your own performance? If not, why not?


Natasha Wallace is the founder and chief coach of Conscious Works, an organisational well-being company.


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