How long should you give an underperformer? – Part 1

How long should you give an underperformer? – Part 1

As a manager, one of the most challenging issues you will ever have to tackle is how to deal with an employee who you class as an underperformer.

I don’t think I have ever worked anywhere where there isn’t an ‘underperformer’ somewhere in my midst.  And before you ask; no it wasn’t me, well not always anyway!

We all wonder how on god’s earth the underperformer can consistently pull the wool over people’s eyes and drift along in a job they have no right holding onto.

Perhaps the underperformer is sitting next to you right now and you are getting a bit sick and tired of picking up their slack at work?

So what can be done and just how long should you give an underperformer before some strong action is taken?

Liaising with the HR Department

If you are unfortunate enough to be managing somebody who constantly fails to deliver, the first step is to sit down with the HR department to discuss a course of action.

One of HR’s primary objectives is to protect the company from possible legal claims for an unfair dismissal.  Therefore they will be keen to explore any reasonable corrective actions first before contemplating terminating the contract of the underperformer.

Following the meeting you can then put together a comprehensive coaching/retraining plan to see if you can turn the situation around.

Unfortunately, to other employees this is often seen as another case of management inaction or reluctance to ‘do their job’.  And as mentioned at the top of the piece, this can be especially frustrating if someone has to work harder to cover the shortcomings of the underperformer.

The Personal Performance Model

Before you can decide what type of coaching or retraining is required, you will need to assess the current performance level of the underperformer in question.  A model which may help you delve deeper into this situation is called the Personal Performance Model and is a simple equation:

Performance = Knowledge x Ability x Energy

It suggests that performance requires the application of knowledge (intellectual comprehension of a topic or discipline) together with ability (the facility we have to apply knowledge), which only comes with the application of some energy (effort).

To give you an example, when I took a Business and Finance diploma at college, I really struggled to get to grips with the finance side of the course, whereas others seemed to grasp it much easier.  While we were all exposed to the same academic content (knowledge), I found I could only achieve the same results as my classmates by working harder than they did.

People can achieve a higher performance by possessing or acquiring different proportions of all these three ingredients (Knowledge, Ability and Energy).  Some of my classmates had more innate ability than me, whilst others had perhaps better academic preparation (more knowledge) as a consequence of the secondary school they went to, compared with the awful school I attended.

Ability = Aptitude x Attitude

This equation suggests that ability requires a combination of both Aptitude (natural capacity that you were born with) and Attitude (how you choose to think and feel about things, which tends to influence your motivation).

An example of this formula in practice would be when I was purchased some track day lessons as a birthday present.  This gave me better knowledge, but I don’t think Lewis Hamilton has anything to worry about, regardless of the amount of practice (energy) I did.

It would appear that unfortunately I don’t possess enough innate driving talent (aptitude) or perhaps it was because I lacked self-confidence (attitude).  Or possibly it was a combination of both factors?

To see how you can apply this model to an underperforming employee, go to Part 2 of this blog where I explain how this model will help you understand where the deficiencies are and how to address them.

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9 years ago

A very interesting idea; I would say that career prospects and progression may also factor into an employee’s attitude. I look forward to your follow-up article.
Managing the performance of those that fail to deliver can be a real test. Consider the time and resources spent turning an underperformer back into a valued team member versus recruiting a more suitable replacement.