Most of us have become fairly accustomed to working remotely or within a hybrid team. The initial shock of having to acclimatise to a different style of working has worn off and we have started to establish new norms. However, that also means that the effort that many of us were putting into regular conversations with our colleagues may have dropped off. In some cases, this is perfectly fine for those who have the support systems at home to prevent isolation. However, others feel disconnected from the purpose of their role and isolated from their team. The reality is that anyone can become an underperformer in certain circumstances. We are currently surrounded by uncertainty which can cause confusion and lack of clarity. So, what can we do as managers to turn around underperformance in a hybrid world? Let’s explore…
Performance is about behaviour: what someone does do; doesn’t do; what they say; the way they interact or how they do something. It can be too easy to associate judgements about a person with our views on their perceived lack of performance. The problem is this can really damage trust and lead to negative knock-on effects. As soon as we start making judgements about the individual, based on our perception of their behaviour, we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may treat the individual as if they actually are sloppy or lazy and they will pick up on this. This can damage trust and we could let our negative perception worsen or even cause underperformance in our employees.
It is incredibly important to remain open-minded about the causes of a perceived performance issue, particularly in a hybrid work environment. We need to be clear on the specific facts of the situation or behaviour being interpreted as underperformance. However, we shouldn’t assume that we know what the actual cause is, so it is essential to remain open-minded. Remember, no one joins a business wanting to be an underperformer. Often there are extenuating circumstances that may be causing the issue. For example, many people are feeling the effects of sustained remote working.
It’s important for us as managers to understand the needs of our people, offering clarity and social contact where needed. If we have lost contact with our people then it is no surprise that they may have lost clarity and focus. The important point to remember is that the purpose of any initial conversation about perceived underperformance is to diagnose the likely cause with an open mind, and turn it around if possible. This means believing the best of the individual and looking for the most positive way forward.
The most common cause of underperformance is lack of clarity…and whose responsibility it is to ensure their staff member has clarity about what is expected? Yes, if we as managers are too busy to set SMART objectives and give regular, clear feedback using a good performance management system then we are leaving the door wide open for the individual to make up their own clarity around expectations that may not be consistent with our view.
Probably the least common but most commonly cited cause of underperformance is individual attitude and the key here is determining why? Ask, has this person been switched off by you or a predecessor? Is there something going on externally that you don’t know about? We need to build genuine trust to understand the real cause. Only by us managers holding regular one-to-one’s with our teams will we gain these insights in a hybrid work setting.
In a hybrid/remote working environment, we need to be more alert to the mental health of our people. By providing the right support it is likely that any performance blip can be turned around. The cause here may appear to be attitude but is more likely to be caused by surroundings or circumstances. Therefore, it is important to tread carefully and if we suspect this to be the cause, we need to be flexible, empathetic and collaborative. By treading carefully we reduce the risk of bigger stress or mental health-related issues arising. And this can provide the flexible support that people really need to get them through this period. Certainly, if the cause is lack of skill or knowledge, we need to make it easy and safe for people to ask for help when working remotely.
Just because there isn’t someone across the desk for support doesn’t mean we have to do everything on our own. If an individual is taking longer than usual to deliver a project, perhaps they have a skill or knowledge gap. Provide development opportunities that suit the way that individual learns best whether online or by buddying with others. Be aware that team-based working may have been reduced in a hybrid workplace. This could mean that people feel they have to struggle in isolation without the support of that virtual team. Consider how shared learning activities can be set up virtually and encourage a culture of self and virtual team development.
Finally, whatever the cause of the underperformance, it is important that the individual in question knows that things need to change. Depending on the circumstances or if the underperformance continues then we may also need to have a firm ‘line in the sand’ conversation. This kind of conversation isn’t a formal disciplinary conversation BUT it does need to be clearly understood and documented informally.
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