Performance issues — who’s ‘fault’ is it really… and what to do about it?

Leaders and Managers will often experience performance issues within their organisations, their teams and people. Whilst ultimately we would love to believe that these are due to the performance of individuals, and that the individuals ‘at fault’ are solely responsible for the issues being experienced, the reality is that much of the time (yes — much of the time), our people and our teams are being set up to fail… we’ll soon see why.

The reality is that we are hardwired as humans, with a bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution Error is a type of bias where we have the tendency to blame others when things go wrong, instead of looking objectively at the situation. We overemphasise personal characteristics and underestimate situational factors when considering others’ behaviour.

Critically, we underestimate our own involvement in the issue, or the degree to which we and organisational factors have contributed to the problem at hand.

Due to various pressures and limited resources — especially around time, money, rapidly changing contexts etc. we often make very quick decisions, without considering the upstream sources to where the problem really might be. This means we are often asking the wrong question in the first place, and trying to solve the wrong problem, or address the wrong issue.

How do we know that this is happening? What we’re doing simply isn’t working. Poor outcomes continue, or are repeated over time with other individuals.

It is important to note that performance management and performance improvement activities are a critical component of managing the performance of people, teams and organisations. That process is not questioned in this article. Rather, it is about strategically using the process, at the right time, to address the right problem. And the concern is that leaders are often doing it poorly, and aren’t addressing the right ‘upstream’ problem — that is, the lead domino.

When faced with a performance issue of some kind — where there is some behavioural or attitudinal modification required to enable a new or different outcome, it is important to STOP. Our first instinct will be to blame the individual for the issues at hand. By stopping and taking ourselves through a more strategic problem-solving process, we can make sure we are identifying the real problem that is.

Let’s first consider the context of the person or team. There are some questions we can ask ourselves that can help mitigate our Fundamental Attribution Error bias and help us identify what is really going on.

Leadership

Leadership is one of the critical lead dominoes that impacts everything downstream. Without effective leadership, our efforts to resolve performance issues are nothing but bandaid fixes that will be set up to ultimately fail. The performance of a team is only as good as its leader.

  1. Is there effective leadership in place that is removing barriers to performance for the team, rather than creating barriers to performance?
  2. Has the leader considered how they may have contributed to performance issues of the individual, team or department?
  3. Have these been addressed as a priority?
  4. Has the leader communicated effectively with those involved, in a manner that suits the individual and team, rather than just the leader?
  5. Has the leader demonstrated expected behaviours and performance by their own example? Is there congruence between what they are wanting and what they are doing themselves?
  6. Has the leader effectively communicated the vision for where the organisation is going, and how each person contributes to delivering on that vision? Are the team in alignment behind that vision?
  7. Has the leader effectively communicated organisational values and is their behaviour, and the behaviour of the team in alignment with those values?
  8. What behaviours are being overtly or inadvertently rewarded? Are short-term behaviours/tasks/activities being prioritised or rewarded against long-term behaviours/tasks/activities that deliver better outcomes?
  9. Does the culture of the team or organisation support the outcomes that the leader and executive team are wanting? Poor culture can kill performance second only to poor leadership.

Structure

Are there structural issues in the organisation that are impacting on the performance of the individual or affected team?

For example:

  1. Do they have clear reporting lines, and effective (and realistic) support through that hierarchy to deliver on expected outcomes?
  2. Does the organisational structure make sense — with clarity, logical flow, and meaning? Does it facilitate collaboration and support?
  3. Have clear expectations been communicated to them around what is required in a manner that works for them?
  4. Is the job weighted correctly (i.e. have they been set up to fail with too much work?). Does each person have the capacity to deliver on expectations?
  5. Do they have clear and functional position descriptions (not just a tick and flick exercise) to direct their efforts and gain clarity around expectations?
  6. Are the systems and technology being used enabling performance or getting in the way?
  7. Are the policies, procedures and processes effective in delivering guidance, insight, consistency and empowering performance? Are they designed and structured in such a way that empowers learning and performance?

Capability

Often team members are unable to deliver on expectations, because they do not have the capability (or skills, knowledge or experience) to do so. As organisations and roles change, often expectations on individuals change, but they haven’t been set up with the right skills or knowledge to deliver on performance requirements. And no. Sending them to a course and hoping they’ll just ‘get it’ doesn’t always work.

For example:

  1. Are we actually certain of what skills, knowledge and experience are required to successfully deliver on the performance requirements?
  2. Have we provided each person with the right education and support to ensure that they have the right skills and knowledge required?
  3. Do they have the right coaching, mentorship and work-integrated learning activities to improve their capability over time?
  4. Have we created other internal support structures that enable them to gain the information they need, when required, in a manner that works for them?
  5. Has the individual or team been given the ability to improve their Mastery, have some Autonomy in their role, and connect to a greater Purpose? All factors that empower intrinsic motivation (see Daniel Pink’s work on this).

There are numerous other questions we can ask to find out if the right problem is being addressed. But before we start throwing someone into a performance improvement process, and blaming them or a team for poor performance, let’s first STOP.

Let’s fight the Fundamental Attribution Bias and consider the broader context, and our own role in the issues being experienced. Let’s diverge and find out what’s really going on, before we converge on solutions. Let’s consider how our people may be being set up to fail, rather than succeed.

Let’s then take the right action to address the upstream problem, or the real issue that is. By doing so, we are giving our people the best chance at success, we may be resolving many downstream symptoms (rather than applying Band-Aid fixes), and we’re genuinely improving the performance environment for not just the person, but the broader team and organisation.

After careful consideration, of course, there may be genuine issues with the individual outside of organisational factors (although, it is very unlikely that organisational factors haven’t contributed to the problem). Formal individual performance improvement processes may be the best course of action moving forward. But at least by then — we will know we are addressing the right problem, we can be more realistic, get better outcomes and the chances of success will be so much greater.

Oh… and we’ll have happier, more engaged people and teams. In the end — that delivers great performance.

Problem Solver | Operational Excellence Aficionado | Lifelong Learner | Paraglider