What causes poor performance by employees, and what you can do about it?

by | Feb 7, 2019

Poor performance at work is usually linked to one, or a combination of three things. Capability, communication, or motivation. An employee needs to have the ability to perform the task, an understanding of what is required, as well as the motivation to do so. Understanding which of these may be affecting your employee’s performance can help you decide what to do about it.

The first of these, capability, may have different root causes, so it is important to consider what specific factors might be contributing.

Does the employee have the necessary resources to perform to the level required? Is their dip in performance linked to a lack of time, problems with equipment or access to necessary supplies? Are there barriers that might be out of their control that are getting in the way of them completing a task, such as a lack of cooperation from other key people, slow approvals from clients, or system delays? Are they lacking the necessary skills to perform the task to the level expected? Has induction and training been adequate? Are there health/wellbeing factors that might be impacting on their capability in the short or long term?

Sit down with the employee and work through these options to see if any of them are impacting. Once you have an idea about what might be getting in the way of them performing to the standard required, then you can work out a plan for removing the obstacle or providing additional training or mentoring to raise their skill level.

If health is a factor, you should seek advice from an occupational health practitioner or the employee’s GP and then consider any reasonable adjustments that may be required.

If a solution to the problem isn’t readily available, due to budget constraints or factors outside even your control, then you should work with the employee to modify the task expectations, until the difficulty has been resolved.

Have you considered that communication or a lack of understanding of the standards expected might be a factor? If no clear parameters or expectations for the task have been set, or if the employee has misunderstood them, this can be a major cause of poor performance. Re-state your performance expectations, and any clear deliverables again and see if you can help clear up any confusion or miscommunication.

If you have worked through a process of elimination on the capability or communication factors, then you are only really left with one – motivation. This, unfortunately, is often the hardest one to unpack and resolve.

Is the employee sufficiently ‘engaged’ with the task? Do they feel undervalued for the work they are doing (which often means personal recognition rather than pure financial reward)? Have they lowered their outputs and standards as a result? If this is the case (and feel free to ask a direct question to find out) then think about what you can do to enable them to feel more valued. Work harder to describe the ‘why’ part of a task to help them re-connect with what difference it makes to the team and the business as well.

Rather than feeling undervalued, has a lack of scrutiny of their work in the past meant that they believe they are able to “get away” with lower standards of performance? If this is the case, don’t just leap in with some form of punishment. If the matter hasn’t been addressed with the employee before, it is not fair to suddenly go in hard just because you have taken notice. Flag your concern, which may be enough to alter their performance, and continue to monitor with openness about subsequent consequences.

There could be other motivational factors involved (including simple boredom or conversely a bit of task burn-out), or non-work-related issues that are encroaching on their work. The key is to have an open discussion with the employee, agree any courses of action, and continue to monitor.

Ultimately, if their performance does not improve to the standard required, then you are likely to need to pursue a formal capability or disciplinary process with the employee.