Why We Tolerate Underperformance at Work and How to Deal With It

6 min min read
Updated on November 6, 2021
By Sam Throness
Why We Tolerate Underperformance at Work and How to Deal With It

Underperforming employees are a big deal. Big. Deal. Allowing them to continue in their underperformance demoralizes the rest of the team, makes the organization less competitive and impacts your results too. Let me explain.

What the rest of the team is thinking about underperformance

What happens if you have a group of A players on a team, and then drop in one C player. Plus, you never address the C player’s bad behavior. Do you think the C players rise up to be like the other A players? No! The A players sink to the lowest common denominator. This just makes sense if you think about it. Here’s what’s going through the heads of the A’s on the team:

  1. Why bother?
    The C player shows up every day with a terrible attitude and/or doesn’t get a lot done; why should they? Why should they knock themselves out when they could do less, just like other people do?
  2. I hate being here
    Working with (or for) a C player is a demoralizing experience. They make life miserable for everyone around them. Toxic attitudes spread like the flu. Poor productivity means that someone else has to do the work that they aren’t getting done. Life’s too short to work with these people, and those that have to are at immediate flight risk.
  3. Apparently, management is okay with C-level work
    They tolerate it. So, they must be okay with it. So why should they take on the stress of trying to do more?
  4. I wonder if there’s somewhere else I could work
    The number one reason A players leave is working with or for a B, C, or D player. If you choose to not deal with your underperformance, eventually underperformers is all you’ll have left.

Underperformers don’t know they’re underperforming

In fact, they think they’re doing really well!

Psychologist David Dunning came up with a term for this phenomenon. It’s called the Dunning Kruger effect. The Dunning Kruger effect posits that people are poor judges of their own competence. In fact, the worse a person’s performance, the higher they are likely to score themselves relative to the performance of their peers!

On the other hand, the better a person’s performance, the lower they are likely to score themselves relative to their peers.
What this means is that, your weakest performers think they are among the best on the team, and your best performers think they need to get a lot better!

See more on the Dunning Kruger effect here.

Underperformance will never improve without your intervention

In a sense, it’s not fair to expect your underperformers to ‘just know’ they should be doing better.
The truth is, they don’t know. Someone has to tell them, and that someone has to be you. Their co-workers may complain to them, but complaints from lateral colleagues are unlikely to produce any change. There is a maxim that says, ‘people change when something close to them is threatened.’ This means that they need to be told two things:

  1. They are considered by you as an underperformer
  2. Their underperformance can’t and won’t be tolerated long term

Reasons we ignore underperformance

  1. There are several reasons for this. Here are the most common:
  2. We know them too well and can’t face calling them on the carpet. “We’re friends, sort of. We know people in common. I know his family!”
  3. We feel pity for them. “I can’t tell a single mom she’s underperforming, she has enough to worry about!”
  4. We fear having to replace them. “He isn’t perfect but at least he shows up every day.”
  5. We are concerned with the cost of severance and possible litigation.
  6. We believe our company is different “We don’t act that way here; it would destroy the family feel of our organization.”
  7. We believe it just isn’t nice to have those discussions. But, is it nice to ignore underperformance? Is it nice to their co-workers who have to cover for them day after day? Is it nice to make the company less competitive because of their lacklustre effort? Is it nice to you, have to worry about them and cover for them? Finally, is it nice to them? Just because you can’t engage them at your company doesn’t mean they can’t engage somewhere else. The longer you hang on to them, the more time they spin their wheels in a place they don’t belong.

Everyone has an ego-based reluctance to believe negative things about themselves

This goes for me and for you too. When you hear negative feedback, what’s your first reaction? Likely, it’s to defend yourself. You don’t believe it!
So, it’s important to document your concerns when you speak with your underperformer. Have times and dates and real-life situations to point to underline and illustrate your concerns.

How to get the buy-in of your underperformer

There are two ways to approach the underperformer. One is likely to bring out their ego-based reluctance to hear negative things about themselves; the other is much more likely to get their buy-in:

  1. You’d better understand! This approach is hierarchical and can devolve into a ‘parent/child’ conversation. You’re the parent, they are the misbehaving child, and they’d better change, or else! This is sometimes necessary, especially when the offence is outrageous and completely unacceptable. But it also brings out the ego-based reluctance to hear negative things and believe them.
  2. Help me understand. This approach is very different. It starts from a perspective of care. You really want to understand why the person is not performing up to standards. Are they bored? Is something going on in their personal life? Are they struggling with mental or physical health issues? You’re asking to find out, not to accuse. Maybe there’s something going on that you can address so they can become the A player you want in their role. We tend to believe and listen to people who we believe care about us. Of course.

Take our course on Dealing With Underperformers today! 

In summary

  1. ‘A’ Players sink to the level of the worst performer on the team. Tolerating underperformance puts them at immediate flight risk.
  2. Ironically, underperformers think they’re doing great! They don’t know they’re underperforming and won’t until you intervene to tell them so, kindly and honestly.
  3. Underperformers will never change without your intervention.
  4. There are many reasons we ignore underperformance, but at the bottom, we believe it isn’t nice to address it.
  5.  Everyone has an ego-based reluctance to hear negative things about themselves.
  6. Asking your underperformer to ‘help you understand the reason for their lackluster performance is much more likely to achieve their buy-in.


The first step is to acknowledge the importance of dealing with your underperformers. When the ‘why’ is strong enough, the ‘how’ presents itself quickly. Good luck as you pursue this most important leadership skill.

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