Tackling Underperformance – Or … Why Do Underperformers Underperform?

The issue of underperformance can affect of all of us – no matter what area of life we look at; from education to public service, from the self-employed to global corporations. Individuals or organisations that underperform not only have a negative impact on those they serve but also do themselves no service either.


Over the last few years there has been an increasing awareness of the need to focus on ‘performance’ not only in commercial businesses (where the impact is more visible) but also in the public sector and increasingly in the third sector as well.

One of the insidious dangers here is the pejorative use of ‘Performance Management’ – where it has become synonymous with ‘managing out’ underperformers. This is a great shame because performance should be something we can take pride in – and it gives us a language for helping individuals (and organisations) improve. Imagine not talking about performance to an athlete or sports-person!!

Here’s the issue – the problem of dealing with underperformance is exactly that, the problem of dealing with underperformance! When it is done well it can move mountains and win trophies – but when it is done badly (or not at all) it allows underperformance to become the norm – which if left for any length of time is fatal to any organisation; school, hospital, charity or business.

Let’s start with the end in mind. The three most likely strategies that result from tackling underperformance are:

Develop – some kind of interventions; training, coaching, mentoring etc, that help improve; skills, knowledge or behaviour (or all three!)

Engage – if their motivation and commitment is not where it needs to be, the organisation has to re-sell their vision, values and goals as it did when recruiting the individual/s in the first place – this is about alignment

Remove – if neither of the above options is appropriate, then a frank, open discussion about what is best for both parties needs to be part of a ‘career counselling’ conversation



Once a manager or leader is clear about the options, then it helps to simplify the issue and break down the reasons for underperformance into; Skill, Will and Tools. Assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that all the right ‘tools’ are in place – that means; structure, equipment, resources, systems and procedures! Does the individual (or team/department) have the capability to do what’s required AND do they have the commitment or drive to do it? These areas must be assessed and evaluated fairly, transparently and jointly.

With all parties playing their part – tackling underperformance need not be the daunting task to be dreaded or avoided – but actually can be a very positive way for all to benefit, with the right support and commitment.