Developing Leaders – Building Teams

3 Leadership Techniques in Dealing with Underperformers

Holding people accountable for performance was not an easy task for me when I first entered the army. I knew my supervisors were going to ensure I performed to standard and I knew I would have to do the same with my people. If I did not become competent in this critical leadership skill, I would never be successful in the army, or any other profession for that matter.

How often have you witnessed fellow employees or leaders in your organization consistently underperform and suffer no consequences? How often have you seen people who are relentless at achieving their goals but are disrespectful in their treatment of others along their path?

Rob Kaiser, in his recent article “The Accountability Crisis” in Talent Quarterly ( that 2 in 3 executives do not hold their people accountable. That is a startling statistic. He further concludes that “[not holding people accountable] isn’t to coddle their employees — it’s to protect their own reputations.”

If you are interested in learning more about how to address this important leadership skill, read on.

In most businesses, there is little room for people who cannot be relied upon to perform their duties to an established standard. That standard includes not only “what” is to be accomplished, but equally important is “how.”  Established goals (measurable, achievable objectives) define the “what.” Acceptable behaviors based on core values (or principles, such as integrity, excellence, or respect) define the “how.” Missing either one sets the conditions for failures in individual and team performance.

I sometimes get strange looks during my leadership seminars when addressing the importance of core values in building organizational cultures. I have experienced what values-based cultures can do. I have also experienced what the absence of adherence to values can do. The difference can be dramatic.

The army has been evaluating soldier adherence to its seven core values on annual performance evaluations since 1997. The army’s values include: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, is credited as the being one of the first CEOs of a Fortune 100 company to assess executives performance versus values match. He clarifies how important values were to GE in his book “Winning” (2009). If you are not aggressively pursuing value-based behaviors in your own organization, it could be a real game changer for you!

The Impact

When accountability is lost in any organization, the impact is everybody loses. Results are not achieved. Supervisors and others are forced to pick up the slack. When good performers see no consequence for substandard performance in others, their own performance deteriorates. Integrity disappears. Discipline erodes. Morale evaporates. Leaders are not taken seriously. Problem employees become a concern the organization. The best people leave.

The task of holding others accountable is one of the toughest skills leaders have at every level from executives down to first line supervisors. Recognize that when you fail to enforce a standard, you just lowered the standard. All too often, good people serving in leadership positions fear the task of confrontation. They are not willing invest in the time to address the challenge. They hope something will magically happen that  turns an underperformer around and all will be well in the end.

Magic seldom happens.

There are times when the real culprit to underperformance occurs when there is an absence of clearly defined goals. In these cases, the individual may only be partially  responsible, if at all.

Just as we expect physicians to correctly diagnose our health issues, leaders must correctly diagnose the reason for performance shortfalls. The biggest mistake leaders make is never addressing the fundamental issue. Understanding the truth on why the performance is substandard will help leaders in determining how best to address with grace, professionalism, and effectiveness.

Leaders – beware.  Everyone is watching to see if and how you respond to those who underperform.

Accountability starts at the highest levels. If the senior leader does not hold her executive team accountable, subordinate leaders are likely to think, “If the boss does not care, why should I?”

3 Keys to Success

Understanding the truth about why, with precision, is the place to start in addressing underperformance. Attempting to fix ill-defined problems will solve nothing and likely make the situation worse. Three key tasks can help achieve success in determining the truth and address the accountability challenge are:

  • Clarify and secure agreement on the standards for performance. Ensure – with abundant clarity – goals are clearly defined, understood, and agreed upon. Same is true for the organizations core values that define acceptable standards of behavior. It is always best to have these in writing to bring visibility to them.
  • Diagnose why the individual failed to perform to the standard. Put on your “doctor” hat. First, diagnose the individual’s ability to accomplish the goal or behave consistent with the core values. Did he or she have the knowledge, skills, and resources to be successful? Were honest mistakes made in the pursuit of the goals? Were there other issues that impeded the effort? Second, diagnose the individual’s commitment to perform to the standard. Was there a motivation issue? Were there levels of frustration resulting from conflicting guidance, bureaucratic obstacles, or personal challenges not related to work? What was your role as supervisor in this failure of ability or commitment? Keep digging until you understand the truth.
  • Act – Develop an action plan. Often, direct engagement with the individual is all that is needed to fix the behavior. Consistency in enforcement is key to long term success in these cases. For more complicated situations, where the challenges are clearly above the individual’s ability to succeed on his or her own, it may be necessary to determine what resources are required to achieve success (time, $$, coaching, education, training). If you or the organization is prepared to invest the resources, develop a well-crafted action plan to address the shortfall. Then execute the plan, ensuring regular follow-ups. If, in your diagnosis, there is pattern of underperformance that cannot be resolved, then take the appropriate action to find a better place of employment within or outside the organization.

Holding people accountable is a critical task for leaders at all levels. The skill requires courage. The template of actions shared above will get you started. Successful execution of action plans requires commitment along with disciplined practice. Seeking advice from mentors and other successful leaders can be extremely beneficial, especially for inexperienced supervisors.

And for those who think the millennials in your organization will depart if they are held accountable, consider the 2016 Deloitte study on millennials. They concluded that young workers actually want to stay with organizations in greater numbers when they are held accountable for their performance.

I wish you the best in your leadership journey.

Posted by Jeff Foley - Blog - May 14, 2019