Do You Undermanage Your Underperformers?

Are You An MbA?

What kind of problems keep you awake at night? We’ve asked this question of thousands of managers who have participated in our workshops. After giving them a minute to make their list, we ask them to put a “P” by the problem if it’s a people problem and a “T” by the problem if it’s a task problem. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that over the years, the people problems outweigh the task problems by at least two-to-one, often more. Make your own list and see if this is true for you.

We ask managers another question in our workshops: why don’t people do what you want them to do? In less than a minute virtually every group creates a list that includes the following:

  • Not enough time
  • Other priorities
  • Forgot
  • They don’t want to
  • They don’t know how to
  • Etc.

When we’re done brainstorming the list, we ask managers what percentage of these issues they have the ability not to control but to influence. We consistently get agreement that managers can influence between 60 and 100 percent. When it comes to managing underperformers, this is an important realization: you’ve likely got more influence than you’re currently using.

At the crux of the issue, most managers know who their underperformers are. They often know why they’re underperforming. They may even have a general idea of how to address the problem. But correcting the problem means you have to do something hard, often harder than living with underperformance. You have to start managing underperformance. That’s where the Catch-22 begins.

First you have to tell them that they’re not doing a good job. That’s hard enough for most managers, but it’s the other person’s reaction that you may fear the most. People are naturally defensive—they may yell, they may give you the silent treatment, some may even cry. You don’t know exactly what’s coming, but you know something’s coming. Then there’s the issue of what they’ll do after you’ve said your piece. If it becomes personal, they can sabotage your efforts or poison other members of the team. They might quit. Even if that idea provides you with some gratification, it means others (including yourself) have to cover their workload until you’re able to hire and train in a new person—still more work for you to do. There may be a number of other worst-case scenarios that might run through your head. The irony is that until you open your mouth, you feel like you’re in control. The moment after you do, it seems like power belongs to the underperformer. You may worry that the way he or she reacts can determine your immediate fate.

This battle has been playing out in your head. To avoid it playing out in real life, most managers opt for the devil they know over the one that they don’t. They’re MbAs—Managers by Avoidance. Rather than suffer the anticipated and feared consequences of confronting the problem, they often tolerate underperformers, and underperformance, until they can no longer afford to do so.

Underperformance and The Second Law of Thermodynamics

This MbA syndrome begins with a simple expectation. Managers expect their people to perform to standard. In their minds, that’s the norm. Yet right there, with that assumption, the problem begins. Rather than expect people to perform to standard managers would do well to expect underperformance and thus expect to manage it. One of the founders of the field of organizational development, Chris Argyris, offered a rationale for this. Individuals and organizations have competing priorities, he wrote in 1957. Individuals strive toward “self-actualization” while organizations seek efficiencies. Because organizations define the playing field, efficiency wins out. The consequence is that in some way, none of us bring our fullest selves to work. Thus, by definition, we all underperform. We all have untapped potential to bring to our work.

In physics, the law of entropy holds that energy and matter will degrade until the universe achieves a state of “inert uniformity.” An ice cube in a warm room will melt; a rock rolling downhill will eventually come to a stop. Kurt Lewin, a social scientist who founded the practice known as organizational development discovered same thing is true for the people: without engaged management, our motivation and performance will tend toward our individual interests. It’s the natural state of things.

The goal, then, isn’t to eliminate underperformance. You can’t. The goal is to manage it so you can compensate for its effects.

Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

It’s easy to think of underperformers as merely a thorn in your side. You’re not alone; most managers avoid these hard conversations. But avoidance comes at a cost: you—or someone else—need to do or correct the work that isn’t being done the right way. That can steal time, set other projects back, and diminish morale.

The longer you wait, the harder it becomes to address the situation and the higher the cost. The performance problem that started out small has grown larger. The person has become the problem. That adds to your stress and makes it harder to confront the situation.

The performance problem—and the way you’re (not) dealing with it—is visible to your entire team. Without meaning to, you undermine your own credibility and influence by letting it go. You turn some high performers into average performers. Why should they work so hard to deliver excellence if you’re willing to settle for so much less?

All of this creates a boomerang effect—your “laissez faire” approach to managing problem performers makes you look like the underperformer! Each time you let a performance issue go, add it to the last one you let go, and to the one before that. It adds up. Here’s a staggering statistic: when you add those issues to the issues the other managers in your company are letting go, and you add those issues to the issues managers in other companies are letting go, the cumulative cost of underperformance adds up to $105 billion each year. And that’s in the US alone. What’s more, that figure (from 2004) includes only the time it takes managers to deal with underperformance. It doesn’t include the hidden costs related to reduced output and service quality that result from poor performance. If that seems like it’s somebody else’s problem, it hurts you too. How much more would your 401(k) or 403(b) be worth if the managers of the companies you’ve invested in did a better job of managing underperformance?

It’s easy to rationalize our avoidance of the problem. “John means well—he’s not doing it on purpose.” “Mark having a tough time right now. It can wait.” “It’s easier for me to fix it than go through the hassle of getting Maria to do it right.” I’ve certainly been guilty of that as a manager. We all have. But to the extent that we do, we’re part of the problem.

It’s a given that you’ve got too much to do and you’ve got competing priorities. If you have more direct reports than you have fingers, you’ll have a hard time keeping them all focused. And if some of those people work off-site then keeping them “on message” is even more difficult.

With great empathy, I say: tough. Being a manager is tough. But that’s not an excuse for undermanaging underperfomers. People want to be part of something bigger. They want their effort to mean something. And most people, if they’re not delivering the goods, want to know about it. Don’t you?

Turning around performance problems is hard work not because the problems are always that difficult but because people can be. We often work not just at cross purposes, but at cross processes; we disagree about what the performance problems are and we disagree further about how to resolve them.

But performance change is a collaborative venture and helping others improve is noble work. In helping them overcome obstacles, you help your people to realize and demonstrate their full capabilities for it is only through performance that our greatness is revealed.

If you’re ready to turnaround this aspect of your performance, check out our ChangeThis manifesto: How To Turn Around Problem Performance In Five Questions or Less.

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