Organizational Behaviour

Poor employee performance: Is it them or you?

One of the most revered tasks in management is the annual performance review (PR). The intent of the review is to give employees an evaluation of their performance for the year, and to assist them by giving them a list of their strengths, and identify opportunities to improve. Sometimes the PR is tied to promotion or bonuses. Most people who work in medium to large size companies have experienced the PR.

I’ve been thinking about performance reviews recently, as I go through the annual ritual of marking final exams and research papers. I’m currently marking a batch of final papers that were, to put it mildly, not well done. Typically I expect a normal distribution, about 10% As; 40% Bs; 40% Cs and 10% Ds & Fs. This time around, the distribution of the papers appears to be on the low side, many more Cs, Ds and Fs than I would like.

Is it the students?  Or did the professor (that’s me) do a bad job explaining the task?  Likely it is a bit of both. That is, student performance is a function of the ability, effort and time a student spends on the course, and the ability, time and effort of the professor.

Using course assessment as an analogy for the performance review is instructive. Employee performance is a function of the employee, the supervisor and the relationship between the employee and supervisor. Poor communication between them, vague directions and lack of feedback from the supervisor can contribute to lower employee performance.  Biased evaluation such as the halo effect, harshness or leniency can also impact employee performance.

So the next time you have a “problem” employee, you might want to consider your contribution as a supervisor to the situation. Is it them, or is it you?


4 replies »

  1. I have seen poor communication play a large part in this. Often leaders ( myself included) will not give clear directives. Even the greatest employee, student or volunteer will fail if they don’t have the ground or directives to launch from. This is very evident in situations where delegation is either absent or poorly executed.

  2. Too true. And the second problem is the employee doesn’t follow up on the vague and confusing direction. Even worse, much of this direction is now being done via email, or text messaging, where a lot of the meaning has been stripped out of the message.

  3. A manager should not pop a “final grade” on an employee. So many times, my PR would come from left field. Employees should know on the weekly quiz the areas they need to improve for the final grade. When I shifted to that perspective as a manager, most of my employees hit their goals.

    Until you are reviewing consistently you will never know if it is you or your employee. Once you are, you will know.

  4. Does Medusa mean anything. You identify a process that has many hidden agendas. This can be expressed by “Expectations”, “Criteria” and “Results”. Expectation is that an employee will do a good job. Criteria is that they don’t make costly mistakes. Result is a good PR therefore a good employee. What happens is that for six months the employee puts out no work. Criteria is met because if you don’t do anything you can’t make a mistake. Employee receives a good PR and a promotion. Ridiculous? This was an actual case in municipal government. Them or You? Depends on who is better at the game.
    Far too many variables influence the outcome of a PR or a final exam to think in terms of “Them or Us”. Try “We” and that “We” includes a lot of people and circumstances. Medusa with a vial of sodium pentothal may just about even out the odds. Good Luck.

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