Why managers share the responsibility for poor employee performance

Mind your double standards

In evaluating your employees, it is important that you also take time to honestly reflect on your own performance as a manager.

As we settle into the new year and focus on achieving our objectives for 2015, it is fitting to consider how as managers we understand and judge the performance of ourselves and others. And how accurate and fair we are in relation to such judgments.

As humans, we tend to blame others for failure and take personal credit for success. So when we do not achieve our goals it is due to competition, technology and many other external causes. But when we do well it is because we are capable, clever or hardworking.

While we like to lay the blame for our own negative behaviour or performance on external causes – the economy, lack of time and resources, among others – we do not do the same when we judge the negative behaviour of others. Instead we tend to blame them personally for it.

So if someone is not achieving objectives and does not perform as expected, it is because they are lazy, incompetent or incapable.

This is interesting not only because we tend to use double standards to evaluate our own and others’ performance. It is also very important because as managers, we influence the performance of others. Management affects the behaviour of subordinates but few of us are likely to take responsibility for others’ performance that is considered substandard.

Most of us agree that organisational culture, leadership and tone at the top are fundamental for guiding or even shaping behaviour. Yet, when it comes to substandard performance, we all seem to fall for the fundamental attribution error: overestimating the influence of the personal characteristics of others and discounting any situational elements that may have caused it.

We also fall for our self-serving bias: we are good, capable people who do positive things; we are responsible for success but pass on the responsibility for failure.

There is enough evidence which indicates that behaviour, for most of us most of the time, is influenced by the firm or organisation we work for. People are likely to try to satisfy those who have authority and power and do what is expected and rewarded. This is not to say that people are not responsible for what they do – but to understand why people behave the way they do is not the same as to absolve them of responsibility.

"You can’t put a cucumber in a barrel of vinegar and expect it to stay sweet."

If we agree that the work environment is important in affecting performance, we should consider it when we judge the performance of others. We need to be aware that it may be easier and simpler to blame the person for bad performance but it is not necessarily an accurate explanation. 

To paraphrase psychologist Philip Zimbardo, you can’t put a cucumber in a barrel of vinegar and expect it to stay sweet. It is going to sour regardless of how fresh or firm it is. People are of course not cucumbers, but if you put them in a toxic environment with a venomous boss, surely that should be expected to affect their performance.

If you are managing people remember:

  • The environment you create, the expectations and rewards you set, and the way you treat your employees is going to affect their performance.
  • Blaming or punishing the people for deficient performance or negative behaviour without creating an environment where people can flourish is unlikely to solve the problem. It just decreases morale and further deteriorates performance. Get rid of the vinegar!

Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.

This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

February 2015
February 2015

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