Identifying Causes of Poor Performance & 5 Steps to Overcome Them

A manager friend of mine was lamenting recently about the prospect of firing one of her employees.

“Will he be surprised?” I asked.

She looked at me for moment, startled by the question. “I don’t know. I’ve talked to him a couple of times,” she said, her voice trailing off.

The bottom line is this: If you have done your job right, a poor performing employee, given an opportunity to improve, will view termination as the fitting outcome for failure to do so. But, if your employee is surprised, you didn’t do your job well enough. There was a breakdown in communication.

As Paul Newman quips at the end of Cool Hand Luke, “Now, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

The most common reason for this failure to communicate is that managers emotionally give up on their employees.

He’s a slacker.

You just can’t find good help these days.

I could talk until I’m blue in the face but she’ll never get it.

He’s a lost cause.

Workers today don’t care about anything.

If you haven’t thought or uttered any of these things yourself, it’s likely you’ve heard someone else express similar sentiments. What these comments have in common is that they focus on attitudes and emotions and have nothing to do with what an employee is or isn’t doing. And, they express helplessness about what’s going on in the workplace, as if it’s all out of the manager’s hands.

The truth is that, as a manager, you have control over work performance. You influence your employees’ work—good and poor—every day.

It’s true, not every employee will improve. Maybe the job isn’t right for that person. Or, maybe the employee just doesn’t want to improve. But before you give an employee their walking papers, you should know you did everything you could to help them succeed. And, the first step is trying to determine whether there is an underlying reason for the performance problem.

Basically, there are three reasons for poor performance:

  • Communication
  • Conditions
  • Consequences


To determine whether poor communication is contributing to performance problems, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your employees always know what is expected of them?
  • Do you communicate through staff meetings, written announcements, and one-on-ones? (Or do you rely on word of mouth?)
  • Do you regularly offer feedback?
  • Do you walk the talk? Do your actions reinforce the company’s priorities and values?
  • Does your employee get direction and guidance from only you? (Or are others giving direction as well?)
  • Do you address performance problems in private? (Or do you address them in a group setting?)
  • Conditions


To determine whether working conditions are contributing to performance problems, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your employees have enough time to succeed?
  • Do your employees have all the tools they need to succeed?
  • Are your employees well trained?


To determine whether consequences are contributing to performance problems, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your employees know that what they do matters to you?
  • Do you regularly offer praise and recognition for good work?
  • Do you always address poor performance and poor work habits? (Or, do you ignore them?)
  • Do you challenge your employees to improve performance when necessary?
  • Do you clearly communicate the consequences for failure to improve?
  • Are you certain that you’re not providing negative consequences for good performance? (For example, you give a tough or undesirable task to a good performer because you know it will be done well.)
  • Are you certain that you’re not providing positive consequences for poor performance? (For example, you avoid giving a tough or undesirable task to a poor performer because you know it’ll take too long or someone will have to do it over.)

Assessing Poor Performance

The answers to these questions will help you assess whether there is something standing in the way of good performance, like an inflexible return policy, a phone system that can’t handle the volume of calls your business receives, or your failure to address missed deadlines.

The good news is that you have the power to influence or control most of these factors. If you are faced with an employee whose performance is below standards, and you have answered “no” to any of these questions, you can positively impact your employee’s efforts to improve by changing factors that are contributing to the employee’s failure.

You can help them with their journey to improve, but it’s up to them to change their behavior. A performance improvement process that is specific, focuses on behavior, and outlines consequences if improvement doesn’t occur, involves the employee and leaves little room for surprises if things don’t work out.

Performance Problems vs. Poor Work Habits

When dealing with performance issues, it’s important to understand the difference between a performance problem and a work habit.

A performance problem deals with expectations about how work tasks are conducted and completed. It can be learned and practiced. Examples: Greeting a customer with a hello and a smile. Approaching guests within 5 minutes to take their drink order. Assembling 40 fasteners per hour with zero errors. Handing in a report by Friday at noon so it can be reviewed prior to a meeting.

Work habits have to do with the standards for the work environment. A poor work habit is disruptive and can’t be learned or practiced. It simply needs to change. Showing up late for work. Leaving work unfinished. Chatting instead of helping customers. Wasting time until the shift is over. Gossiping. Poor personal hygiene. Surfing the net. These are all examples of poor working habits.

Challenging Poor Performance

When challenging a performance problem or a work habit, the process is the same.

1. Determine whether there are any underlying reasons for the poor performance. If so, commit to change what you can.

Example: if you let deadlines slide because they’re not “real” deadlines, then commit to creating realistic deadlines and holding your employees accountable to them.

2. Meet with your employee.

3. State the problem in behavioral terms.

Example: the demographics report was due yesterday at noon and you gave it to me this morning.

4. State the expected standard and come to agreement about a solution.

Example: the demographic reports are due the day before I need to present them to the executive staff because I need time to prepare. What ideas do you have to make sure you meet the deadline next time? What other ideas do you have to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Okay, are we in agreement then that you will?

5. Follow up.

Example: check in with your employee the day before the report is due. How is everything going? I know your report is due tomorrow. Are you getting the information you need? Are you on track?

Although working together to help your employee succeed is your job, taking responsibility for your employee’s success is not. You can alleviate any reason for poor performance that you can control. And, you can guide your employee through a performance improvement process.

But, the rest is up to your employee.

Michele Eby works for Media Partners as a writer and training advisor. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years.

Media Partner’s management training program “Painless Performance Improvement” was the source for this article