Managing underachievers, Part 1

Do you remember that kid in school who was obviously very smart, but acted up in class? He couldn't care less about the subject at hand. If he did the homework he could have easily received an A, but he just didn't do it. You may think that's all in the past, but what if that underachieving kid who sat at the desk next to you is now an underperforming adult sitting out in your department, and you're the one looking for answers?

Organizational development expert Adrian Savage says it all boils down to conflicting sets of values between the manager and employee. To fix your bright but underachieving employee you first need to correctly diagnose the problem by understanding its cause and the reasons behind your employee's actions.

"The biggest misconception is why people underachieve," Savage says. "We tend to attribute it to either flaws in their character - somehow they're lazy or maligned. If these are bright people, we won't attribute it to stupidity, so because they're bright they're probably lazy. We tend to have a very simplistic viewpoint."

Like a doctor who doesn't listen to our symptoms but writes a prescription anyway, we usually try to apply some sort of outside remedy to this problem without first trying to get to the root cause. "Very often we go first for the carrot, then the stick," Savage says. "Bright people won't respond to either."

For example, say your department needs to run a series of reports weekly. It's a simple task and you assign it to an employee. The employee doesn't do the job well and has to be reminded often. You get fed up and dash off an e-mail telling the employee he has to do a better job with the reports. He doesn't. Now what?

"The manager is genuinely trying to solve the situation," Savage says. "But it's like taking a raging fire and pouring gas on it. I think most managers are trying to do their best, but because they don't stop to understand the situation they assume they know what's causing it, then they apply the wrong remedy.

"We live in a cultural in which action is valued over reflection," Savage adds. "Time spent in reflection is somehow seen as not valued. Yet if we never reflect we never learn."

So instead of sitting back, thinking about the problem and then talking with the employee, we jump right in to "fix" things - and we all know how that usually turns out.

Next week, Savage will enlighten us to a different path, a new mindset that will help us get to the root causes of difficult employees and remedy the situation.

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