The View from HR

View from HR: The hidden causes of poor performance

CorrespondentFebruary 22, 2014 

Managers may see incompetence or lack of desire as the primary causes of poor work performance. The subpar worker simply lacks needed skills, or perhaps they feel under-compensated (and therefore under-motivated).

Employees might view poor performance in very different ways. Their blame could cluster around a lack of communication and even manager incompetence!

Everyone has a point, but we all tend to overlook the more subtle reasons why people fail in their jobs.

Selection: Skills alone are not a good predictor of job success. The ability to apply those skills in this culture, with these customers, in this setting is a much better way to forecast performance. “Show us where you used those skills in a situation like ours and how you overcame obstacles to success,” is a great question to ask in an interview in order to assess potential for success. The landscape is littered with talented people unable to get the job done in your specific workplace.

At best, employee selection is both science and art with an unavoidable failure rate. Reduce those failures by defining success for a role and searching patiently for applicants who demonstrate past success in similar situations. Everyone involved should agree on the key purposes of the role. Taking the time to get this right is much better than suffering through even one bad hire!

Alignment: A well-selected employee needs much more to succeed. Context, culture, process, the always-and-never do’s, building a relationship with the manager are all important. Good people often fail in roles because managers and leaders assume too much. Time invested in a new hire (or promotion) to ensure expectations and support are clear and in place is time well spent.

A significant percentage of terminations are due to muddy expectations or lack of resources. Employees own much of the responsibility to seek clarity, direction and help because there are no perfect managers.

Enjoyment: Few jobs are faultless, but unless an employee enjoys most of their work most of the time, performance will suffer. Yes, people can be good at things they dislike, but they become miserable employees if the satisfaction meter stays on empty. At some point, a miserable employee becomes a poor performer.

Job satisfaction is subjective, but personal fit for a role is too often ignored. If I need to have regular interaction with people, but my job locks me away with numbers, misery will follow. Assessment tools help match personal preferences to work realities and bring some needed objectivity to the hiring or managing process.

Impact: Lottery winners and early retirees are often dissatisfied with life. The same is true of an employee who sees no connection between their work and its real impact on others. If I cannot identify how and why my work matters, then it makes me matter less. Unless I do something important for others, I may not feel important. Spending all working hours with little impact on real people is a common, yet unstated reason for losing interest in a job.

Competence and compensation certainly affect work performance, and are more readily identified. Less obvious causes of poor performance deserve everyone’s attention.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit

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