4 Contributing Factors To Underperformance At Work

Nov 09, 2016 1 Min Read
underperformance at work


When managing people, chances are you will need to deal with non-performers. We often talk a lot on improving performance, but let’s diagnose the challenge of underperformance first. No doubt the conversation around underperformance can be daunting, especially for both the manager and the employee involved.

It’s not an overnight phenomenon. Something contributes to the gradual decline of the employee’s engagement or performance at work. Unfortunately, many managers immediately attribute it to the lack of competency.

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So what causes someone to underperform? Based on my experience, here are four contributing factors:

1. Tools and trainings

What are the tools this person has at his/her disposal to be able to perform? Tools can range from IT solutions and training materials to anything else the person needs.

For example, if you work at a manufacturing floor and you find an operator who is not performing at his optimum compared to others. You may put him on a performance improvement plan to improve his productivity. But perhaps the operator is actually left-handed and all the tools at his disposal are meant for right-handed people. This could potentially contribute to underperformance.

In another example, an IT technical support analyst may have work that requires switching between IT applications and software. In that case, a person who has a bigger monitor or multiple monitors may be more productive than someone who doesn’t.

Training is another aspect that needs to be considered when it comes to performance. As managers, have we provided adequate training for our people to do their job well? This could encompass equipping our people in the areas of functional, business or leadership acumen. As Stephen Covey implied, you have to have a sharp axe if you are expecting to cut a tree.

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2. Environment

This has to do with how conducive an environment is for someone to perform at work. It could be as simple as an extroverted employee being placed in an isolated cubicle somewhere in the back room, and we know how that can quickly drain his/her energy.

Or perhaps, the workplace is just too cold that your employees would be constantly thinking of ways to warm themselves up than to actually concentrate in their work.

This might interest you: Is Your Environment Holding You Back? by John Maxwell

Numerous studies have shown how important basic environmental factors are. I once read a Cornell study that said that different ambient noise levels can affect productivity. Even the use of ergonomic chairs or keyboards can make a significant difference in their work, according to other studies.

Environmental factors can also be as complex as teaming. Do you have employees with clashing personalities working together in a team? For a start, you can facilitate and help them understand each other’s working dynamics so that they know how to communicate better with each other.

Going back to the woodcutter and the axe analogy, if the cutter is in an area where there are a lot of mosquitoes, then obviously there’s going to be a drop in productivity.

3. Attitude

Fundamentally, we all want to do good in everything we do. However, through our many life experiences, our attitude and perspective of life sometimes change. There could be elements of frustration, anger, disappointment and disillusionment along the way that make us behave in a certain way.

To address this, one needs to address the root cause of the underlying issue. This requires a lot of patience, and some understanding of our human behaviour. Very often, it’s an accumulation of a series of incidents that led to the change in our attitude.

To change behaviour, you need to change beliefs. You can either try to create new experiences to reframe the mind to create new beliefs. Or, you could revisit previous situations to resolve the unresolved issues. This won’t be easy at all, as it requires courageous conversations.

For your further read: Does Attitude Really Trump Aptitude?

In the woodcutter analogy; if one has worked for the last three years and realised that he never got rewarded whenever he goes above and beyond, he will soon believe that nobody cares. Even if there is a change in role or manager, that attitude will carry through, because it’s an ingrained belief. It’s important to talk it out, understand, and show this jaded employee new experiences to start changing those beliefs again.

4. Competency

Competency is where a person is the wrong fit for the job. In the woodcutter’s case, if Woodcutter Ali is a 5-footer scrawny person and Woodcutter Badrul is a 6-footer with a Viking build, well guess what, Badrul is naturally going to perform better than Ali.

This doesn’t mean that Ali can’t do it. If Ali shows superior skills, commendable attitude and is in the right environment, Ali can overcome his competency gaps. That being said, as his manager, you still have to be realistic about the given situation.

I remember one of my former colleague who had so much passion in computer programming, but couldn’t quite think like a computer. But through sheer perseverance, he improved. He underperformed for years, but because of his passion and great attitude, he eventually was able to perform sufficiently well. He also had a lot of support from all his peers.

So, core competency can really make a difference. If you put me in a job that requires me to be artistic, I’m bound for failure. I need to understand myself well enough to find something that fits my strengths as well.

Bringing it all together

Being the analytical person that I am, my framework for performance is summarised as:

Performance = commitment x capability
where capability = competency + tools
and commitment = environment + attitude


Formula aside, the most important thing for us to do is to genuinely care for our employees and not jump to conclusions too quickly. Have an open mind that underperformance can come from many factors.

If you truly believe that people are your greatest asset, then there’s a long-term gameplay here. Fixing it fast in the shortest term won’t give you the results you are looking for in the long term.

It is something that every individual can look into themselves through introspection and self-awareness. One can diagnose his/her own performance issues by using the abovementioned framework. With the help of a caring manager (although not compulsory), we can take the enemy of underperformance by its horns.

“The highest levels of performance come to people who are cantered, intuitive, creative, and reflective – people who know how to see a problem as an opportunity.” – Deepak Chopra

Sashe would like to hear your thoughts about the challenge of underperformance, and perhaps deliberate a little to tweak the performance framework. You can write to him at editor@leaderonomics.com. To engage Leaderonomics to create a high performance culture in your organisation, email training@leaderonomics.com. For more Consulting Corner articles, click here.


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Sashe is certain that his 18-year career in IT was about leadership and not technology. He is currently the head of Leaderonomics Digital and ponders the use of technology in his free time.

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