No one likes to be an underperformer. It can be embarrassing, discouraging, and bewildering. Yet, many of us have at times failed to meet expectations. The good news is that poor performance isn’t incurable. It’s possible to turn it around and save your reputation with awareness, a sincere approach, and the right support.
What the Experts Say
“Usually a person doesn’t realize that he or she is the underperformer,” says J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and author of Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Sometimes a boss, teammate, or HR representative will tell you you’re not up to snuff, but according to Hackman, it happens less than it should. No matter how your underperformance is identified, by yourself or another, owning up to it is an important first step. “If you’re underperforming, chances are that everybody knows it. If everybody knows it, let’s acknowledge it because at least then we are all living in the same world,” says Jean-François Manzoni, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at IMD International and co-author of The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail. Once you’ve done this, follow these guidelines to improve your situation.
Accept and understand it
“We all have an amazing capability for retrospective sense-making, which allows us to rationalize difficulties as ‘not my fault’,” says Hackman. It’s easy to be defensive about not pulling your weight, especially because the underlying reasons are rarely straightforward. There is often a complex set of causes. You may be managed poorly or have inherited a weak team. Whether there is concrete data, such as sales numbers, or consistent feedback from your boss, peers, or direct reports, it’s important to balance the information. “For someone struggling, the tendency is to attribute too much to external events,” says Manzoni. This is largely because of self-serving bias. For example, you may believe you have a tougher sales territory or a more difficult team.
While those things may be true, there are probably aspects of your own behavior contributing to the failure too. Manzoni recommends taking a hard look at your performance and distinguishing between what you can change and what you can’t. Hackman suggests asking colleagues for their input to better understand how you are missing targets. But don’t just ask: “How am I doing?”
“It’s generally much more constructive and helpful to seek confirmation and disconfirmation of one’s own assessment than to ask someone to respond to an open-ended question about one’s performance,” Hackman says.
Ask for help
“If you’re screwing up, you should be open with your boss,” urges Manzoni. Many bosses respond better to “I need help” than they do the various rationalizations and explanations that often accompany poor performance. Be concrete about what you ask for. “Others will be more open to helping you if you show them how they can help, and you show them you are taking responsibility for what’s in your control,” says Manzoni.
Involving others — peers, mentors, even direct reports — can also be helpful. Ask for feedback about how you are performing and advice on how you can improve. These discussions serve two purposes. One, they help you gain useful insight into your own behavior. Two, they also let people know you are working on the issue. If they know that, they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in assessing your future performance.
Decide what to focus on
Hackman recommends using a three-part checklist to assess the underlying causes:
- Effort. Am I putting enough time and energy into the work?
- Strategy. Am I working smartly rather than relying on routine?
- Talent. Do I have the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to do my job well?
“Just asking one’s self those three simple questions often will surface some concrete things one can do to improve,” says Hackman. Use the answers to decide where to focus your efforts.
Restore your reputation
As you begin to turn your performance around, you may realize that your reputation has been damaged. “The most telling and valid signal is whether you are actively sought out for the most challenging and important work, or whether you are overlooked when something comes up that really counts,” says Hackman. If this happens, you need to pay careful attention to how you appear to others. “You not only need to perform better, but you need to be seen to perform better,” Manzoni says.
Once you’ve made some progress, share your success with others. Ask for feedback to confirm they see improvements. Hackman recommends saying something such as, “I’ve been doing some work to improve the degree to which I do X. Have you noticed any changes? Are there additional things you might recommend I consider?” He cautions, “There always is a reputational lag. It will take some time before improvement is noticed, and even more time before people actively seek you out for the important work.”
If all else fails, consider a change
There are occasions when you might find it too difficult to restore your reputation. Even if you make objective progress, others may not recognize it as such. It’s also possible that you realize that you are underperforming because you are disengaged or uninterested in the work. In both these situations, consider moving on, either to a new team or a new employer. As Hackman says, “Sometimes withdrawing really is the best option.”
Principles to Remember
- Recognize what is in your control to change and what isn’t
- Sincerely ask for advice and feedback
- Include others in your improvement efforts so they can see and appreciate your progress
- Be defensive about your underperformance and try to blame it on outside events or other people
- Assume that just because you are improving, others recognize it
- Stay at a job where you’ve become permanently labeled an underperformer
Case Study #1: Asking for help
Kelly Brown* had been an analyst at a global accounting firm for six months when she was assigned to a strategy project analyzing the company’s divisions. The analysis was done using compound annual growth rates and projections and Kelly was responsible for pulling the right information together in the spreadsheet. She had previously gotten feedback that she wasn’t learning Excel quickly enough and that tasks often took her much longer than her manager expected. “I was very disorganized in how I approached my work,” she admitted. When her manager requested a meeting to review the spreadsheet she was currently working on, she was nervous.
After just a few minutes, he began pointing out numerous mistakes. He made clear to her that she was not meeting expectations and that she needed to quickly demonstrate that she could gain the Excel skills she needed. Kelly was panicked. She didn’t know how to do what was asked of her, and she felt that she was being managed poorly. She thought that perhaps she was in the wrong job and should resign.
Instead, she asked a colleague for help — a peer who had been at the firm a year longer. He patiently helped her identify the mistakes and make the spreadsheet functional. However, the experience made Kelly realize that this type of analysis was not one of her strengths and that the manager was not helping her acquire the skills she needed. Kelly got through the project but when it was finished, she asked to be reassigned to a manager who was better matched to her style — more relational and hands-on. She ended up staying with the firm for five years and eventually became a high-performing manager herself.
Case Study #2: Demonstrating that you’re willing to change
Grant Miller* was working as an engagement manager in the education practice of a large strategy consulting firm when he took on a new high-stakes, high-stress project. Sam*, an associate who had been labeled an underperformer, was assigned to work on the project. Grant had two options: he could assign Sam busy work to keep him occupied until he was assigned elsewhere, or he could give him the coaching and support he needed to do real work and succeed. To decide which course to pursue, Grant sat down with Sam and asked about how he viewed his own performance. Sam said he knew he had been underperforming and expressed a genuine desire to get better. “He was articulate and self-reflective which made it clear there was room to improve,” Grant said.
Because Sam had asked for help and showed a willingness to change, Grant was willing to invest his time and energy in helping him. He gave Sam a very specific project, matched to his skills and interest, and set out clear expectations. Grant was also more aggressive than usual about giving feedback. He asked Sam to check in regularly so they could work together to identify what was working and what wasn’t. With Grant’s support, Sam was able to contribute to the project in a meaningful way. Six months later, Sam was asked to leave the firm — “At the end of the day, it wasn’t the right fit for him,” Grant explained — but he has gone on to be a high performer in a different field.
Source: Harvard Business Review