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Turning an Underperformer into a Team Performer

In looking at the relationships between bosses and their subordinates the most obvious reasons for relationship break down are generally seen as”-“bad bosses” who miss-manage people, “bad subordinates” who are lacking in skills or motivation, and “bad chemistry” in the relationship between people clearly not suited to work together.

Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux from IMD International and Insead, in France, respectively, suggest that many dysfunctional relationships actually involve competent, committed, and potentially compatible individuals who get caught up in a vortex of underperformance, over-monitoring and discomfort. This is a dynamic, which they have called the “set to fail” syndrome.

Essentially, their argument is that if not well handled, the way a leader deals with his or her under performers tends to turn their behavior into a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Most leaders find it relatively easy to work with the better performers working for them because these individuals typically take charge of problems, come up with ideas and deliver on commitments. They can also become good “sparring partners”!

Research has shown that most bosses tend to approach the under performer in similar ways. When assigning them tasks for example, they not only discuss what needs to be done and why, but also provide detailed guidelines on how the tasks should be accomplished. They then tend to monitor the under performer’s actions and results more systematically than those of other team members. This research showed that a more controlling style of management often has the opposite of its intended effect! It encourages subordinates to disconnect from both the boss and their own job, which in turn leads to reduced performance and increased tension.

This “Pygmalion effect” suggests that a person’s performance tends to adjust up or down to the expectations of whoever is in charge and under performers tend to see very clearly that the boss lacks confidence in their ability!

Bosses are more likely to notice and remember negative aspects of under performers behaviour because that is what they expect to find and can easily store in their memory! Should the perceived weak performer score a success, bosses tend to keep their labels intact by attributing the outcome to external causes such as luck or help, rather than to internal causes such as effort, judgment or ability.

To break this vicious circle, boss and subordinate need to unravel their joint contributions to the subordinate’s underperformance. This requires a discussion, and too often the discussion fails for predictable reasons: the boss entering the meeting with the aim of getting the subordinate to own up or understand their failure – at which point the subordinate switches to defensive counter-attack!

What is needed is for boss and subordinate to engage in a genuine dialogue about their mutual behaviours and intentions. The boss must acknowledge his or her role in shaping the subordinates attitude and actions and the subordinate must come to realize that his or her misery is, in part, self-inflicted.

Belbin Team Role Profiles serve as a wonderful foundation for such discussions by identifying key strengths and weaknesses not just in etrms of performance, but also that underpin the relationship between Boss and Subordinate itself.

The process needs to start with the boss doing some thinking in private, followed by an open exchange between the two parties to try to agree on the evidence of poor performance, the underlying causes of the problem (including how the boss’s behaviour has affected performance), the specific actions both parties need to take to improve the situation, and how to avoid relapse – by providing opportunities to bring up problems earlier.

So, properly handled, the “self-fulfilling prophecy of failure” can be turned into a more effective employee who will do his or her best to live up to the new, and shared, expectations of their boss.

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