The Defensive Attribution of Poor Performers
We all have a tendency to attribute successes to our own abilities and skills and our failures to external factors out of our control, such as luck or the lack of resources.
But chronic underperformers are capable of turning defensive attribution into an art form. They use self-serving explanations as to why they underperform as a badge of honor. By blaming anything and everyone but themselves for consistently bad performance, they use defensive attribution as a shield to protect themselves from accountability.
Colleagues used to hearing this cause-and-effect illusion just shake their heads in disbelief. Leaders, on the other hand, are left trying to figure out what to do about these well-crafted stories of misrepresentation.
It seems the more consistent the poor performance, the louder these attributions become. Over time, sub-par performers often blame their failure on the leader, contributing to a negative climate within the team.
It's bad enough that the lowest performers seem to have an endless list of reasons as to why they underperform. They then compound the problem with extensive excuse making during group settings. They almost revel in it.
They will even go as far as identifying impediments and obstacles openly before performance so they have a ready explanation should they need it. On occasion, they actually sabotage performance by procrastinating or delaying action so that they can prove to others that high performance was beyond their control.
Good leaders can only rarely convince low performers that they hold a highly inaccurate view of themselves. Persuading a weak performer that they own their results just like everyone else is a bridge too far. Poor performers become deeply committed to the idea that factors beyond their control explain their weak output. Attempting to shake them from this view usually produces ill will on both sides.
The better strategy is to lay down the gauntlet of what needs to be accomplished without regard to past performance. Clearly stating what is expected and putting a Performance Improvement Plan in place to achieve the necessary performance clarifies what is at stake for everyone.
Without significant improvement in 60 or 90 days, leaders have the answer they need to ignore any attribution, defensive or otherwise. Moving on from team members who can’t perform helps results and team morale.
That’s a defensive stand worth taking.