The Three Reasons Why Employees Underperform

Jay Forte, MS, CPC, ELI-MP

Author, motivational speaker & certified life and CEO Coach, host of The Greatness Zone Podcast

What an ongoing struggle it is to get employees to perform. At HR conferences, Vistage and CEO meetings or Organizational Development groups, the topic always seem to be about getting our employees to step up and do great work.

In all my years of teaching and consulting around workplace performance, I see three reasons why employees consistently underperform: they incapable, they are disconnected or they are unclear.

  1. Employees are incapable. Employees who are incapable have core abilities that do not align with the abilities required to complete the activities of the job. Every job has very specific activities that are key to performance and therefore success in the job. For example, the activities of an accountant are to close the books, create reports, analyze performance, ensure compliance with procedures, etc. These activities require a strategic, analytical, methodical and detail-oriented person. If your accountant employee is not that, performance is a challenge. Many times the primary reason for employee underperformance is in hiring employees who do not fit their role – they do not have the abilities that align to the specific needs of the job. Solution: Include the required abilities in addition to skill and experience criteria when defining the performance profile of the job; hire for abilities as well as skill and experience.
  1. Employees are disconnected. Employees who are disconnected do not share or understand the direction, vision, belief or mission for the business; there is no emotional connection to the business. When employees understand the beliefs and vision of the business and they align with their personal values, they are more engaged, committed and passionate about their performance. Think of the way employees who work at Google feel about innovation, the way employees feel about coffee at Starbucks, the way employees feel about service at Zappos, the way employees feel about the outdoors at Patagonia. Our performance is fueled by our passions and values – and diminished by our lack of interest or connection. Solution: clearly share your vision and belief about the business and source/hire employees who share your beliefs.
  1. Employees are unclear. Most employees do not have or understand their specific performance expectations – they don’t know what a successful or “done right” outcome is; they have no performance standard. Here is a personal example: when my kids were younger it seemed we were always in conflict with them about keeping their rooms clean. The problem was we didn’t share the same definition of “clean room.” So, once the room was cleaned “at expectation,” we took a picture – then taped it to the door. This became the standard of how a room was to look when we said “clean.” We all shared the same expectation or standard and now could hold them accountable for delivering this specific performance. In the workplace, employees need the same guidance about what a successful performance outcome is so that they can be held accountable to deliver it. This clarity lets them use their abilities to determine how to deliver the outcome. Solution: improve the clarity of performance expectations to ensure employees know what is expected and can perform accordingly.

Sustainably high performance requires that employees’ abilities fit the activities required of the job, they share the values, beliefs or mission of the business and they clearly know their performance expectations. We can’t expect employees to bring their A-game if we haven’t set them up to be successful. Once in place, it is fair to expect great performance.

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