Taking a Systems Approach to Managing Low Performance on Your Team

How do you deal with low performance from employees on your team?

Maybe your first reaction is to scold her, demand improvement, or put her on a plan.

Maybe you’ll wait another week or two to see if the trend continues and confront him then with more supporting evidence.

What I have often found is that low performance or a decline in performance isn’t because of the individual, but rather because of the systems that are in place.

In other words, I didn’t put the right systems in place or configure them in the right way to drive the behavior I desired from my team.

An employee misses announcements and deadlines because she doesn’t know she needs to check her email/Slack for those critical updates. Another employee’s work suffers because he is distracted by a co-worker he sits next to in the office.

According to W. Edwards Deming (father of the Total Quality Management movement), 95% of the variation in the performance of a system (organization) is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people.

A system here can really be anything — for example, it could be a process, a set of instructions, a meeting, an application, a communication method, or even a seating arrangement.

Some of these “systems” issues can be resolved by confirming that an employee has a correct and clear understanding of expectations (e.g. they understand instructions, are aware of deadlines, know to look at Slack for critical updates, etc.).

Others, like the distraction example, can be resolved by updating or reconfiguring the system, i.e. switching seats and moving people around.

My colleague (let’s call him Jared) has an example from a past job where his boss asked him to fire 10% of the customer support staff on his team due to their low performance.

Jared understood that this might be the right decision, but first wanted to understand the root cause of this low performance.

After digging in deeper, he found that the way the system was set up, once an employee responded to a user email, they became the “owner” of that interaction if the user wrote back with another question in the future.

This effectively created two queues for each employee: one for new issues and a second for follow up issues — and what Jared found was that these lower performing employees were having trouble handling two different queues.

Rather than fire these employees, Jared updated the system so the customer support team only interacted with new issues, even if another employee responded earlier to another previous question.

Almost overnight the performance of these bottom 10% of employees increased to acceptable levels and their morale improved (suddenly they didn’t suck at their job)!

What’s more, now that other customer support reps might be reading your prior responses to issues, quality across the entire team improved with the creation of this new QA check.

Like I said before, 95% of variation in performance is caused by the system, but that still leaves the 5% that is caused by the people.

When you see low performance from an employee, rather than address them in an accusatory way (which will automatically put them on the defensive and shut them down), a better initial reaction should really be to first check if the employee is okay.

This is something I consider consciously with my team — because that first instinct is that the employee must be at fault — but I really do believe that people don’t come into work to do a shitty job.

I had an employee on my team (we’ll call her Sasha) that was a top-performer, and then suddenly her performance dropped for two straight weeks without warning.

I caught up with Sasha informally in our break room and asked about her weekend, and she replied by saying she “had a rough weekend, but everything is okay now.”

That was definitely a red flag, so later that day I pulled her aside into a conference room (rather than dig into what was likely a personal issue in a common area) and asked her more about what she had said earlier.

Sasha went on to tell me a story about how her and her roommates were locked out of their apartment by sheriffs because their landlord was actually leasing them a foreclosed property and had committed fraud.

Even worse, she found out while she was at work on Monday (and at no fault of her own) that she was homeless and didn’t have access to any of her personal possessions.

Obviously, she wasn’t able to focus at work that day or the next several following the news and her performance suffered.

Understanding that context, our conversation took a very different direction.

Instead of being worried about her numbers, I made sure that she felt supported and that she knew she could take any time she needed to move her things into a storage unit and search for an apartment.

The next week after things settled, her performance fully rebounded and we built deeper trust instead of a shared resentment.

How do you address low performance on your team?

Do you agree with me or do you have a different approach?

Let me know in the comments!