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1 Strategy to Avoid Tolerating Poor Performance

Behavioral science proves it: your world is perfectly designed for the results you are achieving. When leaders tolerate poor performance, everyone pays the price. A growing talent shortage has employers struggling to fill open positions. The crisis is keeping leaders from making decisions that matter. Leaders feel trapped between tolerating poor performance and having enough employees in critical roles to deliver results. You can't escape difficult performance management decisions. But, you can bring out the best in your employees and avoid tolerating poor performance.

Benefits of Effective Performance Management

Employee labor costs are often one of the most significant line items on any leader's budget. The benefits of effective performance management are well documented beyond the obvious benefit of increasing revenue.

Effectively applying performance reinforcement leads to increased organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). Also known as discretionary effort, OCB is performance management's "Holy Grail." It cracks the code to the full potential of a team and organization.

Research studies have linked effective performance management with positive individual and organizational outcomes such as increased productivity, decreased employee turnover intentions, reduced absenteeism, improved operational efficiency, reduced costs, and improved customer satisfaction.

Consequences of Tolerating Poor Performance

Performance is contagious. Tolerating poor performance reinforces poor performance. Failing to bring out an employee's best undervalues your team. When performance falls below the standards of the job, the employee, team, and organization suffer.

A study revealed that underperforming employees make up more than 15% of organizations on average. Reduced productivity, inferior products and services, and team morale issues stem from tolerating poor performance in the workplace.

Impact of the Talent Shortage

Poor performance is better than no performance, right?

If you have been a healthcare or IT industry leader, the talent shortage is not new. However, the current talent shortage has a growing number of leaders second-guessing decisions to address poor performance and using arguments like the one above.

Here is an alarming snapshot from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the record-high job openings.

How to Recognize if You are Tolerating Poor Performance

The following are a few of the more common and dangerous symptoms of leaders and a company culture that tolerates poor performance:

  • Doesn't let performers know how they are performing. Too often, leaders avoid providing feedback on performance. Providing clear expectations and giving feedback are essential for employees to achieve high-performance levels. Sadly, the lack of this feedback is a common challenge poor performers and high performers experience. Leaders often don't feel equipped to provide specific feedback or lack the will to have a difficult conversation about an employee's performance. Avoiding a difficult conversation often makes the situation worse for both the employee and the leader.

  • Designs and provides tools without input from performers. Time constraints and an overreliance on past understanding are often behind the faulty decision-making for why leaders don't solicit employee input from followers. Without the proper staffing, equipment, or budget, employees cannot perform at high levels.

  • Compensates poor performers the same as good ones. Leaders pulled in multiple directions often lack the direct performance observation and performance documentation to quantify the difference between the top and bottom performers. The result is often that poor performance gets rewarded equally with high-performance levels.

  • Doesn't develop followers. Sometimes, leaders don't invest in coaching and developing employees out of fear that developed employees will find another job. In a fast-paced digital marketplace, training investments need to match the pace of change for employees to remain current and capable.

If you recognize one or more of these symptoms of tolerating poor performance, now is the time to take action.

How to Avoid Tolerating Poor Performance

Just stop it! One of my favorite Bob Newhart skits presents this oversimplified advice for a client seeking help. If you need to laugh, here is the video.

To avoid tolerating poor performance, it is helpful to understand the factors that influence performance. Psychologist and founder of performance technology Thomas Gilbert argued that environmental and individual performance factors affect performance.

  • Environmental Factors: Skills and knowledge, capacity, and motivation are factors that the leader controls.

  • Individual Factors: Information, tools, resources, and incentives are factors that the performer influences.

These six factors are described below in the Behavior Engineering Model. You can apply the model like a checklist to understand where to optimize performance and uncover what followers need most to improve their performance on any given task.

When using this model to diagnose opportunities for improvement, a simple way to get started is to ask employees:

  • Which one of the six factors would help you improve the most?

When asking this question, be prepared to be surprised and follow up with probing questions such as:

  • What is the real challenge?

  • What else?

I have polled hundreds of employees across multiple industries, and the most frequently selected performance improvement factor needed is information and feedback followed by tools and resources. The only exception that I have found is with new hires who often choose skills and knowledge.

Leaders that avoid tolerating poor performance tend to have the following good habits:

  • Provide timely feedback for high performance. Timely feedback is not once a year or month. Performance feedback is best when given as close to being in the moment as possible.

  • Ask others for information before making decisions that impact them. Remember, those closest to tasks have unique insights, and likely many changes have taken place since the last time you performed the task.

  • Provide incentives for good performance. Compensation for the work is not enough. The rewards and incentives you provide can be as simple as saying thank you.

  • Invest in developing followers. Career development is frequently one of the top reasons employees leave their current job. Find out what employees need to help them achieve higher performance levels and provide opportunities to learn and grow in those areas.


One of the best ways to avoid tolerating poor performance is to create an environment that brings out the best in followers. The Behavioral Engineering Model can help you take action and make changes in ways that matter most.

Bad leadership habits and ineffective leadership approaches are not destiny, and all leaders need to continually develop at a pace consistent with the change in the leader's world. One of the core philosophies in my new book, Breaking 10 Leadership Bad Habits, is that leaders must continually transform and adapt or fall behind. Sign up to be the first to know when the book is available and begin receiving weekly leadership tips delivered to your inbox now.

Key Summary Points

  • Behavioral science proves it: an employee's world is perfectly designed for the results they are achieving.

  • Tolerating poor performance reinforces poor performance.

  • The Behavioral Engineering Model can be applied to understand where you need to optimize performance and uncover what followers need most to improve performance on any given task.

  • Leaders can avoid tolerating poor performance by providing timely feedback, asking for input, providing incentives, and investing in developing followers.

Are those you are leading growing, serving others, and prepared to surpass you? Let's talk about how we can help you achieve your goals with transformational executive coaching and organizational solutions that work.


Daniels, A., & Daniels, J. (2006). Performance management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness. Performance Management Publications.

Gilbert, T. (1978). Human competence: Engineering worthy performance. McGraw-Hill.

Faragher, J. (2006). Employers lose 32m a year, tolerating poor performance. Personnel Today, 1.

Plump, C. (2010). Dealing with problem employees: A legal guide for employers. Business Horizons, 53(6), 607-618.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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