• Andrew Telburn

Underperforming vs. Underperformer – Know the Difference


Underperforming is something we all do at one time or another. We take that extra hour of sleep and feel groggy all day. We cook a meal without much enthusiasm, and taste the results. Nobody is perfect, in life or in work. If there were a lot of perfect people out there, how interesting would work (or life, for that matter) really be?

Learning to live with imperfection is, of course, a vital skill for managers – or anyone whose job involves holding someone else accountable for job performance. The tricky thing is, ‘performance’ has no fixed definition.

Performance is related to cultural fit and organisational need. As businesses flex and change with the times, so will the skills and talents needed to drive them forward.

There is, of course, a difference between an employee who is ‘underperforming’ and one who is ‘an underperformer.’ For managers, these two situations call for different approaches.

The case of the ‘underperforming’ employee

An employee with a history of strong performance might begin to slip. All managers have seen it, but turning the situation around is another thing. Many companies follow established procedures to address performance issues. More often than not, this type of procedural approach falls short. After all, an underperforming employee isn’t a strictly mechanical problem to be fixed with the turn of a screwdriver; it’s a nuanced, individualised, human situation.

Does the employee have personal stresses or unvoiced grievances? Do they sense a lack of career development opportunities or upward mobility? Are you (the manager) contributing to the problem in ways you don’t realise? Are there hidden frustrations with the work culture, workflow, communication, or team chemistry?

Managers are more likely to succeed when they consider more than one angle. Some managers pursue conversations with colleagues or former managers of the underperforming individual. This can deliver a valuable dose of perspective, especially when the manager is dealing with their own frustrations; yet talking to others about an underperforming employee should be a thoughtful and confidential exercise, with careful attention to the type of work culture you want to build or maintain.

When the time comes to approach the underperforming employee, formality and frustration work against you. A positive, relaxed, constructive approach will help the employee to be forthcoming and share new information. Sure, it’s important to be specific about performance issues and be candid about how those issues affect the team – but it’s equally important to make space for dialogue, and allow your own assumptions to be challenged.

The case of the underperformer

The underperformer has already been through informal conversations about their performance. Their output continues to flag, despite your efforts to find a collaborative solution; and let’s be honest, you may have let the problem develop for too long. In some cases, an employee maintains that he or she has no performance issues, or refuses to participate in further conversations around performance.

This, of course, is when formal procedure comes into play, and a new kind of dialogue opens up. Is the employee a fit for the organisation? Are they willing to work within the organisation’s disciplinary procedures to improve performance on behalf of the team? Could their skills and personality be transferred internally with good results? At what point is termination justified?

Mutual success and reciprocal growth

Knowing how to distinguish between ‘underperformance’ and ‘an underperformer’ is an elusive but indispensable skill for managers. After all, the concept of ‘fit’ doesn’t begin and end with recruitment – ‘fit’ is an ongoing process of mutual success and reciprocal growth. Instead of a rigid or disciplinary approach, look for constructive ways to ‘flex’ with individual underperformance. Open new possibilities for dialogue, and empower people to bounce back. Imperfection is a fact of life; and although it seems like a paradox, knowing how to work with imperfection is precisely what pushes organisations to higher levels of performance.


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