During conversations about performance issues between an employee and their manager, various reasons can emerge: training wasn’t long enough, there is a lack of support, the employee is not asking enough questions, the employee is not honest, the manager is not available, the manager’s standards are unreachable, etc. I could go on and on about what is usually brought up in these exchanges.

I have a few problems with these reasons. They are often one-sided. They also usually put the blame on the other person, which can severely deteriorate the trust that is needed between an individual and their manager.

So I want to offer a different way to look at underperformance that isn’t personal and that could genuinely help you – whether you are an underperforming employee or a manager – have an objective and constructive conversation about what can be done.

The different types of tasks

Performance issues usually arise when the behaviour of an employee impacts their ability to perform their tasks successfully.

In ergonomics, a task is the process of producing, transforming, changing something at work. A task is defined by two elements:

  1. A specific goal (which can be qualitative or quantitative) and
  2. The conditions to reach this goal (processes to follow, work environment, team).

Despite having a straightforward and simple definition, the notion of task is actually quite complex when we look at what happens in the workplace. Why? Because human beings have a tendencies to complicate things.

There isn’t one, but five different types of tasks:

Type of task

What it is

Example

1. Prescribed taskThe prescribed task is what should be done. It can be more or less defined, more or less abstract.Tasks that are described in the job description
2. Expected taskThe expected task is what is expected from the employee but that is not explicitely. written or said. It’s usually seen as common sense.Writing an email without a typo or grammatical error is expected but not necessarily said or documented.
3. Represented taskThe represented task is the the task that the employee thinks is expected of them. It is highly impacted by how the task was described to them, as well as their own experience and biases.An employee thinks they shouldn’t emphasise on quality because they were asked to produce high quantity, because that’s how they were doing in their previous job. They will adapt their work accordingly to this belief.
4. Redefined taskThe redefined task is the task that the employee gives themselves to do, that they proactively offer to execute. It depends on their representation of the task, and also on their own individual goals for career advancement or work-life balance.An employee who thinks they shouldn’t emphasise on quality is driven by career growth. They want to do well, which they understood means high numbers regardless of quality. They will change their work to reach what they think is their target and according to their personal goal.
5. Effective taskThe effective task is what is effectively done by the employee, with all the unpredictable events that occur in the workplace (computer not working, seasonality, etc.)During summer, there are generally less clients to call so a sales employee might reorganise their daily tasks to focus more on admin work than what they usually do.

The why of underperformance

As you probably understood by reading the table above, there is very often (if not all the time) a mismatch between the tasks prescribed and the reality. This explains why the job you read about in a description is different than the job you actually do.

But there’s another layer of mistmatch that complicates things even more: what is prescribed and expected from management isn’t always understood by employees. Managers assume employees know what they expect, and employees think they understood what their job really is about. The things that make sense to managers are not always that obvious for employees, and employees are not always asking the right questions or even aware of what they need.

When aligning the five types of tasks, the manager and the employee gain a lot of clarity. They understand the other person’s view, which helps them build trust and empathy. You will find below a few pointers as to how to use the table above to sort the situation you are in.

What you can do

If you are an underperforming employee:
  • Start by writing down the feedback you have received: is it a problem of quality, quantity, or general behaviour/professionalism?
  • Then write if the problem might be due to:
    • What you understood of the role and the expectations (what was said to you and what you intuitively understood) -> tasks #1 & 2
    • The fact that you were doing the job differently in your previous company -> task #3
    • What you expect of your own job and how you see it fit in your career -> task #4
    • Conditions that are/were not in your control that impact the way your tasks (be objective here, otherwise you will give the impression you are finding excuses and not owning it) -> task #5
  • In the conversation with your manager, ask them to clarify the role, the targets, the way you can reach your targets (processes, etc.) and their expectations. Ask that they create a document or send you the information so you can have it in writing somewhere. This will allow both of you to avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding later on.
If you are a manager:
  • First, identify where the problem of underperformance comes from: look at the five different types and ask yourself if this is an issue with what is prescribed, expected, represented, redefined or effective.
  • Depending on what you find out, here’s what you can do:
    • Issue with the prescribed task: you need to document (in writing) the tasks of the employees, which include their specific goals and the conditions to reach them (processes, team support, etc.)
    • Issue with the expected task: think about what makes sense to you and what you think doesn’t need to be said, and then write it. If it’s a problem of grammatical errors in emails, explain to the employee that it is important not to make any. If you explain a professional behaviour, explain in details what you expect to the employee. Be as detailed and clear as you possible.
    • Issue with the represented task: an issue at this level means your employee is applying their own filter to what task #1 (prescribed) and #2 (expected). Think about the employee’s background and experience, specifically how they used to do the job in their previous company. If you don’t know, ask them. Explain how things are different in their current role.
    • Issue with the redefined task: look at what the employee is proactively doing, while still being underperforming. What does it say about how they redefined their tasks? Help the employee redefine their tasks so it matches what is expected of them. You might have to look into #3 as well, because it is linked to how the employee sees their role overall.
    • Issue with the effective task: look at the context of the issue: seasonality, covering up for someone who is absent, technical issues, the employee not feeling very good – all of these things can happen on a daily basis and impact the performance.
  • Have a conversation with the employee and let them know you will followup with an email that summarises it. My advice here would be to prepare a draft before the talk so you already know what you want to discuss. Before sending it, change it with what was effectively discussed.

Performance issues often come from miscommunication. Now that you know the different levels, try to use them in your next conversation, regardless on which side you side.