How to deal with underachievers

November 13, 2014

Read time 1 min

In my previous post, Harry learned to stop trying to motivate people. Instead he focused on creating an environment in which people could find intrinsic motivation. However, Harry still felt like some of his team members were underachieving.

“Tom keeps asking stupid questions. It’s like he hasn’t learned anything since he joined my team six months ago. How I deal with such underachievers?” Harry asked.

As with the question on motivation, our focus is easily misplaced. We tend to see these situations as isolated incidents without the systems perspective. We remedy the case at hand and move on without fixing the system that caused it.

Assuming our interpretation of the situation is correct (someone is not realizing their full potential), it’s important to understand how we got to that situation.

As Peter Scholtes pointed out, there are two options:

  1. We hired an underachiever
  2. We hired an achiever and turned him into an underachiever

Harry needs to take a long, hard look at recruiting, on-boarding, training, coaching and similar activities, and their interactions. Most probably this is a problem in the system they’ve designed.

Looking at the situation at hand from this perspective, Harry realizes the lack of on-boarding Tom has received. Together with Tom they redesign the on-boarding process and figure out how to make up for the missing parts in Tom’s case.

“I always initially think it’s a problem with the individual. When I look deeper, it’s almost always a problem with the system, not the individual”, Harry reflects.

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