Underperformance in the Workplace – The Leader’s Responsibility

Underperformance in the Workplace – The Leader’s Responsibility

After listening to the arguments for dismissing employees for underperforming I would like to challenge the Employer to take a look at “the man in the mirror”. We cannot change anyone except ourselves. Anyone who has tried changing a spouse or a life partner will know how difficult it is to get “them” to do what “we” want. So, let us begin with the one person we can change, ourselves. Too often we “blame” others as it takes the responsibility away from us. It’s them not us! It excuses us. In my recent work and research I have found that underperformance seems to have become the order of the day. I have spent hours observing teams and groups at work and have come to one conclusion, the onus rests on the Leader/Manager/Owner to turn the tide. The focus needs to shift to the Employer and Top Management, are they themselves “engaged”, committed and credible? Do they know where they are taking their teams, how they going to get there and why? Do they care about the team, the goal and the organization? Or is their ineffective leadership manifesting in the underperformance of the team?

According to research there are very valid reasons for underperformance in the work place. Surely no-one wakes up in the morning and says “let me get to work so that I can do a really lousy job!” We have to believe that people get up in the morning with every good intention. The Leaders and Managers and CEOs are the people who set the direction and lead their teams. They either create or do not create a culture that encourages high performance behaviours. Are their behaviours then not inextricably linked to the behaviours of the teams they lead, whether good or bad? Let us find out.

Research as recent as 19 April 2010 and is South African specific concludes:

“South African Companies should not be sitting on their laurels… fewer than HALF are currently happy in their jobs; 47% say they are comfortable or happy and the remainder are frustrated and miserable.” (JobCrystal Happiness Factor) Let us pose the question, how can anyone who is frustrated and miserable, perform well or be motivated to perform better? In a skills shortage country we cannot persist with the outdated and arrogant attitude that employees can be happy to have jobs! We, as employers, should be striving to retain talent and become preferred employers so that we have the choice of the best people. You know the Japanese have a theory about motivation, they say if you want to motivate employees, then EMPLOY motivated employees.

Research shows that issues such as:

• Weak management and leadership
• Inadequate or no induction training
• Unclear or no job descriptions;
• Ambiguous role definitions;
• Poor relationships with managers and or colleagues;
• Wrong fits;
• Fuzzy goals and accountability – no clear Vision;
• Health and wellness issues;
• Physical and environmental facts – poor working conditions;
• Company policies and politics;
• Salary;
• Inconsistency in the workplace;

…are all reasons why employees underperform. All or most of these issues can be controlled by Management. Hence, we need to look at the man in the mirror.

In order to understand performance one has to understand what drives a person; what motivates a person to perform. Elsabe Manning, in her EQ Workshop, maintains there are 3 factors that are responsible for losing motivation: lack of confidence; lack of focus and lack of direction. It is the leader’s responsibility to instil confidence in the task, the organization, and the cause. It is the leader’s responsibility to set the direction and to focus on the end result or the goal.

We have all heard of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As far back as 1959 Herzberg was fascinated by what motivated some employees to perform while others did not perform. He published his findings in his book The Motivation to Work and his theory became known as the Hygiene Theory or the Two Factor Theory. Herzberg found that the factors causing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction were two different entities and not two opposites of the same pole. He called the factors causing job satisfaction the motivating factors and he called the factors causing job dissatisfaction the hygiene factors or the “KITA stuff” (acronym for Kick In The Arse). The top 6 factors leading to job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are:

-Satisfaction Dissatisfaction (KITA)
-Achievement Company policy
-Recognition Supervision
-Work itself Relationship with boss
-Responsibility Working conditions
-Advancement Salary
-Growth Relationship with peers

Only once these negative factors have been uncovered and removed can we start addressing motivation to perform, job satisfaction, employee engagement, call it what you like. You may well find that once the KITA stuff is out of the way performance naturally starts to improve.

When faced with poor performance – management needs to take a critical look at the reasons for underperformance. If the issue is not addressed it will lead to a spirit of apathy within the organisation, a culture of blame and underperformance. Even the motivated employees will stop performing as there is nothing more uninspiring than for a motivated employee to arrive on the job and see the acceptance of mediocrity and underperformance. Soon they too will be underperforming as a result of this. Management often accept mediocrity and as a result of tolerating and accepting poor performance they are indirectly encouraging high performance employees to start underperforming.

The steps to addressing under performance is first to assess. Once the KITA or hygiene factors have been uncovered, remedial steps can be taken. Certain things may need to change, be implemented or removed. Leaders’ behaviour needs to be examined and if found lacking in skills or ineffective they need to be coached into high performance behaviours. And then, if “behaviour breeds behaviour” our own changed behaviours should ignite the positive behaviours in our team, the behaviours needed to promote performance! This change of behaviour cannot be taught in a classroom but rather in a manner where the leader can achieve a higher degree of self-mastery and self-awareness. This is achieved in one on one coaching over a period of time. The coachee is encouraged to discover truths about what drives him or her and to improve his own performance behaviours. Coaching will stretch the coachee and create the desire to move from the existing state to the desired state.

Much has been written on Management and Leadership, enough to know that there is a wide range of opinions and theories on this topic reflected in a variety of books, articles and dissertations. From Machiavelli to Townsend to Tannenbaum to Harvey-Jones there is very little consensus what makes a good leader. One thing almost all of these authorities agree on is that good leaders are good communicators. If leaders can learn excellent communication skills, then it may follow that they become more effective as leaders. More effective leaders will result in more effective teams. It follows then that teaching leaders excellent communication skills is of absolute importance. If coaching can teach a leader excellent communication skills and produce high performance behaviours within him or herself, and behaviour breeds behaviour, then it should follow that this effective leadership ability will automatically improve the performance of the employee, team or department. And so the corollary should be true too; if the leader does not display excellent communication skills and high performance behaviours then this will be reflected in the poor performing employee, team or department.

One of the best known authors on Leadership issues is Warren Bennis. He describes the differences between leaders and managers as follows (for which he has been highly criticized and misunderstood for his views but here they are anyhow):

Managers Leaders

-Focus on systems and structures Focus on people
-Accepts the status quo Challenges the status quo
-Has his eye on the bottom line Has his eye on the horizon
-Does things right Does the right thing
-Is a function Is a role

Perhaps this is where we go wrong when we recruit promote employees to become Managers. We assume that the person who performs the best will automatically make the best Manager. But this is not necessarily true. People need to learn to lead and manage. When Bennis described the skills of a leader he described them as four management competencies:

(a) Management of attention – leaders must be able to encapsulate a vision that other people are able to endorse and buy into, they must bridge the present and the future, and encourage their team to take steps to create that future for themselves. Coaching can do this. Coaching generates improvements in individuals’ performances. It helps develop self awareness, it improves behaviour, and it corrects behavioural difficulties. Coaching benefits the organization when the coachee demonstrates fuller use of his/her potential and talents, it increases creativity, learning and knowledge, it intrinsically motivates people, it improves relationships between people and departments and it facilitates the adoption of a new culture or Management style.
Leaders who think they can communicate the Vision and Mission statement and then think the job is done have missed the point completely, this is an on-going process and good leaders work at their vision continuously;
(b) Management of meaning – good leaders articulate business purpose and priorities accurately, succinctly using language that encourages intelligent questioning and that creates a positive and creative environment;
(c) management of trust – this is the emotional glue that binds the leader and the team together; it is this very rapport that connects people in the organisation and creates an environment for people to perform;
(d) management of self – credibility is the cornerstone of employee “engagement”. Managing oneself gives the leader credibility – walk your talk – display a level of self discipline that is more demanding of oneself than of others, be persistent, master self awareness and be open to learning. Effective leaders create a virtuous cycle of ambition within the organisation; they have remarkable resistance, when things go wrong they admit their mistakes and draw appropriate lessons and incorporate that into their vision too.

The problem is how do we help people develop these skills that will elevate them from supervisors to effective leader/managers? The answer lies in coaching… Developing these skills is not a classroom exercise but a continuous process that can be achieved through coaching… learning needs to come from reflection about specific instances and behaviours over a period of time, not from a text book.

Coaching Leaders to Communicate

Leaders, who do not communicate well, are not really leading at all. It is one thing to have the position, another to fulfill the role. The standard remedy, it appears, is to provide executives in this position with some form of presentation skills training. This might help them give a speech, but it will do little to help them become genuine leaders.

To achieve successful leadership skills, the executive must:

• achieve a higher degree of self-mastery and self-awareness;
• learn how to be a superb listener, before they can begin to become a better talker;
• actively manage themselves as role models – for learning and for the corporate values;
• uncork their imagination (so often suppressed through years in risk-averse or over-controlled corporate cultures);
• learn how to link their imagination and emotions to the ambitions they have for their team, department or organisation, so they can express ideas in ways that will capture the imagination and emotion of others.

This is, however, just a starting point. Managing oneself is a long-term, continuous project, but the more self-aware the manager is, the easier it will be to communicate with genuine passion, time after time. Having built the basic capacity to communicate, the executive can now make further strides toward becoming an effective leader. Coaching is designed to help your leader/manager to become more aware and to manage by example, accept responsibility, treat people with respect, integrity and dignity, involve employees, have clear goals and a clear vision, empower themselves and employees, give them responsibility and hold them accountable, be consistent, encourage employees to be proactive, and develop strategies that encourage creativity in the work place. A leader that is “engaged” has his finger on the pulse. One who keeps the passion alive in himself will naturally ignite the people around him. A leader is one who shows commitment not only to himself, but to the organisation, the goal and the team. A leader promotes collaboration, and encourages development. A leader has credibility as this is the cornerstone of employee engagement. Walk your talk. Leaders must have the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships with their people, demonstrating respect and understanding for individual and cultural differences.

Leaders need to use language that encourages building self esteem, speak positivity, encourage the use of positive language, encourage praise, build his people and stretch them continuously to achieve better results. If the bar is raised the level of performance will follow. If we treat employees like underachievers they will underachieve. It is known as the Pygmalion Effect. It is fact that people will do more for recognition than they will for money. A compliment from your boss is worth more than the extra R500 if we reach our targets. I’m not saying do away with monetary incentives but find out what motivates your people, build relationships with your employees, get to know them, and understand what makes them tick. Treat them as individuals and not as a group, treat them as adults and creative thinkers not as children. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. Avoid becoming too involved with the processes and functions of management and develop the knowledge and skill to understand human behaviour. 80% of most jobs is the ability to develop and maintain good relationships. Learn to manage and retain talent; skills are short in South Africa and we need to do everything in our power to retain our talent and become a preferred employer of choice.

Although it is generally accepted that employees are an organizations critical success factor, employers are still unable or unwilling to effectively manage their employees’ contribution to the organization and ultimately to the bottom line. It becomes evident then that it is of utmost importance for any organization to create an environment where employers manage their employees effectively. The key word is effectively. Create an environment where exceptional performance is encouraged. It would be far more encouraging for employers to have signs up such as “here out OurCo we ensure that our employees are given every opportunity to exceed their maximum potential”, rather than the same old vision and mission statements on display year after year. Talent in an organization needs to be recognised, managed, nurtured and grown.

Dr Ilke Incleglou, a senior research Psychologist in the UK, who has a PhD in Organisational Psychology from the University of Munich, focuses much of her recent work on what is known as employee engagement, work motivation and person-job fit. She says that “engaged employees” are the employees that perform excellently. Engagement is referred to as a psychological state people are in when they work and is linked strongly to performance, it’s more than just about job satisfaction. Engagement is now one of the hottest topics of management. The Corporate Leadership Council defines employee engagement as “the extent to which an employee commits to something or someone in the organisation, how hard they work as a result of this commitment and how long they intend to stay with the organization”. And the “extent to which the organisation enriches their life and work experiences”. It is a two way process. Gone are the days where employers can arrogantly think “they are lucky to have jobs”… It is normal human behaviour to ask WIIFM? And when an employee asks this question he should be able to answer it confidently and positively taking into account the financial benefits, career advancement benefits, developmental benefits etc. If an employee is engaged he is motivated to perform well. This comes from being energized by your job and what needs to be achieved. Incleglou expresses for employees to become engaged management has to put very clear criteria in place, what does the CEO want, what is the strategy, consider how this is related back to the employees, create clear expectations. In all studies on engagement one thing is clear: no-one impacts the state of engagement more than an employees’ immediate leader!! Leader’s engagement drives employees!

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