Why don’t your employees perform (the way you want them to)?

Dec 9, 2022
Posted in CULTURE
Dec 9, 2022 Kasia Mierzejewska

Employee and team performance has become one of the most important topics on management and HR’s plate (just look at the layoff memos from Meta and Coinbase). But what does this actually mean for teams, managers, and HR professionals?

With the post-pandemic world and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, we now face soaring energy costs, constantly growing inflation and interest rates, and an impending recession. All of this impacts budget investments and startup funding, so companies are currently reshaping their strategy and finding a way to make themselves more efficient, e.g., by laying their staff off. This means that companies are left with fewer people to do the same amount of work (or maybe even more). 

On the other hand, we are still struggling with quiet quitting (a constantly misunderstood phenomenon), the deteriorating mental health of employees, and general burnout. The group most impacted by this burnout are middle-level managers who are responsible for both team and individual performance (43% of them feel burnt out). They are under huge pressure from the higher-ups about their teams’ performance and from their teams about compensation, remote vs. in-office work, and so on.

Before we start analyzing the reason why people don’t perform, let’s see what founders and managers believe about performance. At some point (especially when they exceed 50 people in their organization), they come to us saying that their employees do not perform, or that the job is not done in the way they would do it. It is a general statement that has to be challenged. When we dig deeper, we see some patterns that are harmful both for the company and for employees. 

Top 4 leaders’ unhealthy beliefs about employees’ performance

  1. Top performers are those who work a lot, overtime and during the weekend. This is often confused with commitment. Founders and managers assess their employees with random visible criteria such as hours spent at work, which has nothing to do with good performance.
  2. Top employees are those who work like them – a lot and efficiently. Because they think of themselves as A-players, they put themselves as a role model so “those who work like me are A-players.” 
  3. Top performers should be immediately ready to perform at their best level. 
  4. An A-candidate will be an A-player, no matter the system, company culture or processes.

The above beliefs are harmful for both founders/managers and employees, and employee performance should be positioned at the highest stake. What are the real reasons behind employee underperformance?

Of course, the first visible reasons are at the EMPLOYEE level: lack of skills or knowledge (employees don’t know how to do their work), lack of motivation (they don’t want to do it), burnout, and temporary problems (such as health or family issues). Very often, managers just stop here and decide to part ways with an employee.

However, it is not that simple because there are other reasons that we need to take into account when trying to understand why our employees don’t perform. We can look at them on two levels: organizational and managerial. 

The reasons why your employees don’t perform 


  • No business strategy and no direction, which basically means no understanding of WHY we do things. People need to know and feel WHY they do what they do. Even a ready-made great performer, working without context and a deep understanding of the goals, can end up being frustrated, which may result in a decrease in performance.
  • No expectations regarding their role, and we are talking here both about the levels (individual contributions, team lead, executives) and areas (HR, engineering, finance, etc.). In the Gallup engagement survey, the first question is “I know what is expected of me at work.” Understanding our contributions to the company performance gives people the power to do more and better.
  • No clear culture – no clarity on how we do things in the company (how we behave, how we communicate, how we build relations) means that an employee blindly seeks it. They  make mistakes and waste their time, which can also be perceived as underperformance
  • Poor systems and tools as blockers – people might know how to do their job, and want to do it, but often can’t perform because they don’t have the right tools. Complex procedures and the wrong equipment can impact an employee’s performance.
  • Bad usage of the talent – there are no people who are great in all areas. People are usually good in one aspect of the same role, bad in another, and just average in yet another. It is the organization’s job to decide how to make the best use of their talent.


  • No culture fit – this can be an outcome of no clear culture on the organizational level or poorly executed recruitment because there’s no culture match. That is why a clearly-described culture is a critical aspect of building high-performing companies.
  • No support from manager in various moments of employee lifecycle:
    • Bad or no onboarding – and the assumption that the candidates we hire are the best and ready to work. There are no people 100% ready for the job in your organization and your team. 
    • Bad delegation of tasks / poor instruction – not having a clear “definition of done” can end up with the manager not getting what they expected
    • No check if and how the task was delivered  – very often managers delegate tasks, but then forget to verify if it was executed within the deadline, and how it was executed. 
    • Lack of regular feedback – if an employee doesn’t know what they do wrong, not enough, or too much, the manager cannot expect that an employee will change their behavior. 
    • Wrong role modeling – “examples come from the top” and employees see how their managers behave. So how can we expect a specific behavior from an employee if a manager doesn’t do it, or does it the complete opposite way? 
    • Not explaining “why” – again delegating tasks or responsibilities without telling people the context can end up with just average delivering them.
    • No space to share problems – there is this common belief repeated by managers “don’t come to me with problems, come with solutions” which is bad on every level. People very often cannot solve problems because they don’t have a context or broader perspective, or they don’t have tools, or they just don’t know how – and it is the manager’s responsibility to support them to overcome the issue.

There are many reasons why people don’t perform, which makes it difficult for managers to decide what to do with an underperformer. Dismiss? Put on a Performance Improvement Plan? Change their role or team? Unfortunately, there is no one good answer. The first step for a manager is to understand what is behind an employee’s underperformance. 

How to deal with it?

Two crucial actions here are to have ongoing conversations with employees and monitor their work. In every case there has to be a specific action plan created and implemented, with concrete tasks, behaviors to be changed, and deadlines. 

An action plan has to be consistent with the reasons an employee doesn’t perform. There will be different plans for a person with temporary health issues, someone that struggles because of lack of skills or motivation, and an employee who doesn’t understand what is expected of them. A manager can use a set of tools:

  • Proposing development actions: trainings, shadowing, mentoring, coaching
  • Changing their role or team
  • Setting clear goals
  • Clarifying the strategy, goals, and why is it important
  • Delegating properly (with clear defining what “done” means)
  • Giving ownership and empowerment to the employee
  • Tracking progress 
  • Giving constant feedback
  • Clarifying company culture
  • Dedicating special time to problem-solving

Finally, the role of HR or the role of the manager?

Many managers and HR professionals argue about who is really responsible for employee performance. Isn’t setting KPIs and holding them accountable the role of HR? Shouldn’t HR be in charge of underperforming employees? After all, HR is for holding employees accountable, right? 

Let’s put it straight: dealing with an employee’s underperformance is the manager’s responsibility. They are the ones who work with their team on a daily basis and they are the first to spot and understand what might be behind an employee’s underperformance.  

HR can give the tools, teach the methods, and support. Sometimes HR people participate in edge cases or conflict situations, but they should never do the job for managers. 

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