Causes of poor performance


A simple definition of unsatisfactory job performance is a gap between the employee’s actual performance and the level of performance required by the organisation.
There are three basic types of poor performance:
    1. unsatisfactory work content — in terms of quantity, quality, etc;
    2. breaches of work practices, procedures and rules — such as breaching occupational health and safety requirements, excessive absenteeism, theft, harassment of other employees, etc; and
    3. employees’ personal problems — usually ‘off-the-job’ issues that affect their performance at work.
Starting point
The performance management process should be able to identify these problems. The performance management interview and feedback processes can discuss the problems to diagnose the causes and explore possible remedies, such as job redesign, training or counselling.
  •  A starting point for managers is to ask the following standard questions:
  • What actually is the performance ‘gap’? 
  • How large is the gap? 
  • Is it increasing?  
  • What are the consequences of that gap? 
  • How serious are they? 
  • Has the employee’s performance been acceptable in the past? 
  • Does the employee have the skills required to perform the job? 
  • If not, is he/she capable of obtaining and using the skills?
  • In general, is the employee capable of performing the job?
  • How important to the employee is performing the job well?
  • Does the employee benefit in some way from unsatisfactory performance (eg trying to prove a point, having a hidden agenda, undermining someone else, trying to orchestrate a payout or redundancy, etc)?
  • Are there any barriers to performance within the employee’s control?
  • Are there barriers within the organisation’s control (such as resources issues, communication problems, recruitment, training, job descriptions, etc)?
  • What is required to remove these barriers?
  • Is it feasible to do it?
Causal factors
It is essential to distinguish between causal factors that are ’employee issues’ and those that are ‘organisation issues’. Many situations have elements of both, with one causing or contributing to the other. There may be a tendency for both parties to allocate blame either to each other or to third parties, but if the true causes are not diagnosed and treated, the problems will be repeated.
The following list indicates the scope of causal factors and their symptoms, and suggests appropriate remedial actions.
The work environment
Problems: inadequate resources and equipment, poor working conditions, occupational health and safety issues.
Strategies: feedback from employees should alert management to fix the problems, as should data from job analysis, OHS audits and inspections, etc.
Work organisation
Problems: workflow issues such as bottlenecks, shortcuts, breaches of rules and procedures, management and supervision issues, or errors that are not corrected.
Strategies: job redesign, work study, reviewing and enforcing rules/procedures, performance management of managers/supervisors.
Employment conditions
Problems: insufficient remuneration, excessive workloads/working hours, work/life balance issues.
Strategies: again, feedback from employees will identify these problems. Reviews of remuneration and work/life balance policies and practices should occur. Review of business performance and activity may show that business is expanding, and may justify increasing staffing levels.
Recruitment/selection issues
Problems: mismatch of job and employee, job ‘oversold’ at recruitment/advertising stage (eg with a misleading title or suggesting opportunities for advancement that aren’t there), employee over-qualified, boring aspects of job not mentioned.
Symptoms include employee boredom, alienation or ‘looking for trouble’.
Strategies: in these situations, reviewing recruitment processes and procedures is advisable, as well as training or retraining recruiting staff and updating job descriptions and specifications. For the employee, look at possible transfers and career planning progression.
Alternatively, the employee may lack the ability to perform the job well, and training cannot change that. Transfers or job redesign are the most constructive options available here.
Problems: employee promoted beyond his/her ability, promoted too soon, or promoted into an unwanted or unsuitable role (eg a technical expert or successful salesperson who becomes a manager, but lacks people management skills or misses the intellectual content or ‘buzz’ of the previous job).
Strategies: performance management combined with the employer’s support and resources (such as mentoring) may overcome the problem. Development and promotion policies also require review. In some cases, returning the employee to his/her old job (or an equivalent) may be an option. However, this should only be done with the employee’s agreement (and without applying pressure or duress), otherwise it is unlikely that performance will improve much anyway, and there is the possibility of a claim of unfair dismissal against the employer.
Job role unclear/communication issues
Problems: clashes over who does what, demarcation issues, employees not clear about what to do. These problems become more apparent after organisation restructures and after managers are replaced.
Strategies: updating job descriptions, job redesign and teambuilding training.
Problems: performance deteriorates after having been satisfactory, the employee exhibits one or more of various behavioural symptoms.
Strategies: it is very important here to distinguish between employee-related causal factors (such as events occurring outside work) and organisation-related causes. If the latter, it is up to the organisation to fix them; if the former, employee counselling can be arranged.
Work group or peer group problems
Problems: personality clashes, ‘groupthink’, harassment, conflict between job requirements and cultural values, work hoarding (for example to exert control over others or to ‘look busy’ because there is a fear of redundancies), poor management of the work group. There is a wide variety of potential problems and causes, both individual and group-related.
Strategies: arranging transfers (to remove clashes), redesigning jobs (to eliminate parts that conflict with cultural values), counselling, teambuilding strategies, and performance management of the manager/supervisor/group leader.
Taking remedial action
Remember, there is more to performance management than identifying what is wrong. You must back up the diagnosis with active steps to fix the problems and prevent them from recurring. This requires ongoing support, resources and reviews of progress. 


Ever considered team building as a means of bringing your employees together to perform at their best? A team must be more than a collection of individuals working together. It must have:

  • a unified sense of purpose
  • commitment to a set of values
  • collective desire
  • accountability and trust 

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