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Managing Underperformance in a Virtual World

15 Oct
by Suzie Business Owner & Senior HRBP

Breathing Space’s Senior HR Business Partner Mandy Barstow offers some great guidance on how to manage under performance in the current work climate.

The lack of visibility caused by the world being forced suddenly into working remotely has created an undercurrent of concern about underperformance for some businesses. However, others believe that performance and productivity have increased.

The reality is that many managers struggled to deal with underperformance in the traditional working environment, but perhaps the fact that everyone was together in the office camouflaged this.

Now has to be the time for all people managers to focus on developing the skills that are needed to get the best out of their people, wherever they work and this is largely about clear, courageous conversations.

Performance is about behaviour: what someone does do; doesn’t do; what they say; the way they interact or how they do something. It can be all too easy to associate judgements about a person with our views on their perceived lack of performance and this can really damage trust and lead to negative knock-on effects

Use the following CISS acronym to think about the typical causes of underperformance and use this as a basis for exploration







The individual doesn’t know what is expected or doesn’t understand that they are not delivering



Clear expectations, objectives and timelines with regular, honest feedback





Individual Attitude

They are demotivated, don’t want to be there, can’t or won’t work effectively remotely




Understand what does motivate the individual, stay non-emotional.  Start the disciplinary if necessary, following an initial investigation





Skill or Knowledge

They don’t know how to do something or haven’t developed the skills yet.  They may be fearful of admitting this Promote development and asking for help as a positive move.  Define clear development needs followed by training, coaching & feedback.  Consider following Performance Improvement process if necessary





Surroundings or Circumstances

The surrounding environment may be contradicting the desired performance e.g. home schooling, poor desk set up, constant interruptions at home.  Could be anxiety or fear of others Empathy and flexibility around situations that are outside the individual’s control and concern for wellbeing.  Clear communication around what is expected and work together to determine win/win solutions.

If managers treat the individual as if they are actually sloppy or lazy then employees will pick up on this lack of faith in them.

This can fundamentally damage trust and there is a very real chance that the negative perception could worsen or even cause underperformance in our employee.

In a recent Actus survey of 100 people managers they found that an overwhelming majority of respondents believed that high trust leads to high productivity and low trust correlates with low productivity.

Add in the impact of a low visibility, virtual environment and things can easily escalate out of hand.

It is far better for everyone if people managers can meet underperformance head-on, but with empathy.

Underperformance that is allowed to continue without challenge can undermines team morale and trust in managers and should be managed robustly wherever the employee works.

In general, few people managers look forward to performance conversations – which is why prevention through clear expectations and feedback is always preferable.

However, it is so much more effective to turn an under performer around than it is to start again from scratch and the long term benefits of such courageous conversations can be beneficial to everyone.


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