Expect More … From Low Performing Employees

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Low employee performance is not always resolved by surface or temporary remedies. If you see promise in this individual, you may need to dig deep to find the root causes.

Find the Root Cause of Poor Performance

If you have several workers performing similar jobs, it’s hard not to compare them: enthusiasm, ability to problem solve, how well they function on a team, how well they interact with clients and the biggie—results. You’ll have a standout or two, some average types and sometimes a poor performer.

But consider that the problem of poor performance does not necessarily rest solely with the individual worker. Problems stemming from the organization or you, the manager, could also play a role.

Authors Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux suggest that when an employee fails—or even just performs poorly—managers typically do not blame themselves. The employee doesn’t understand the work, a manager might contend. Or the employee isn’t driven to succeed, can’t set priorities or won’t take direction. Whatever the reason, the problem is assumed to be the employee’s fault—and the employee’s responsibility.

But is it? Sometimes, of course, the answer is yes. Some employees are not up to their assigned tasks and never will be, for lack of knowledge, skill or simple desire. But sometimes an employee’s poor performance can be attributed in part to his or her boss.

In fact, research suggests that bosses—albeit accidentally and usually with the best intentions—are often complicit in an employee’s lack of success. How? By creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived underperformers to fail. If the Pygmalion effect describes the dynamic in which an individual lives up to great expectations, the set-up-to-fail syndrome explains the opposite. It describes a dynamic in which employees perceived to be mediocre or weak performers live down to the low expectations their managers have for them. The result is that they often end up leaving the organization—either of their own volition or not.

Set-up-to-fail Syndrome

Set-up-to-fail syndrome is often set in motion when a boss begins to worry that the employee's performance is not up to par.
Set-up-to-fail syndrome is often set in motion when a boss begins to worry that the employee’s performance is not up to par.

The syndrome usually begins surreptitiously. The initial impetus can be performance related, such as when an employee loses a client, undershoots a target or misses a deadline. Often, however, the trigger is less specific. An employee is transferred into a division with a lukewarm recommendation from a previous boss. Or perhaps the boss and the employee don’t really get along on a personal basis—several studies have indeed shown that compatibility between boss and subordinate, based on similarity of attitudes, values or social characteristics, can have a significant impact on a boss’s impressions. In any case, the syndrome is set in motion when the boss begins to worry that the employee’s performance is not up to par.

The boss then takes what seems like the obvious action in light of the subordinate’s perceived shortcomings: he increases the time and attention he focuses on the employee. He requires the employee to get approval before making decisions, asks to see more paperwork documenting those decisions or watches the employee at meetings more closely and critiques his comments more intensely.

These actions are intended to boost performance and prevent the subordinate from making errors. Unfortunately, however, subordinates often interpret the heightened supervision as a lack of trust and confidence. In time, because of low expectations, they come to doubt their own thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or to take any action at all. The boss, they figure, will just question everything they do—or do it himself anyway.

Some other causes of Set-up-to-fail Syndrome

  • Confirmation bias, as reported in iveybusinessjournal.com. Bosses dwell on failures and overlook the successes of “weak performers.”
  • Lower Expectations, resulting in lost confidence in his or her own ability. They begin to question themselves and become anxious about their performance. The focus turns to what could go wrong rather than performing the work.
  • Fewer chances to shine, when the boss gives choice job assignments to other people. It becomes difficult to prove the boss wrong, when he or she is only working on routine tasks.

Recognize and prevent poor performers from sliding into a downward spiral. Create an environment with open communication where workers are comfortable discussing challenges. If you suspect a poor performer might be struggling because of set-up-to-fail syndrome, consider discussing your observations and responsibility with them. Set up process (mini) goals to help direct the kind of behavior that can help them to be successful over time.

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