It can be frustrating to feel like your employees aren’t making the most of their talents. As their manager, you might wonder if it’s a question of knowledge or determination: Do they not understand what it takes to perform at their best? Or are they just not motivated? In this article, the authors examine three main reasons why your employee may not be reaching their full potential: personal challenges, interpersonal issues, and leadership problems. It’s a bad idea, but remember that at least 30% of employees’ performance is a product of how they’re managed, meaning your leadership can play a big role in determining whether people reach their potential or not. It’s possible that, despite wanting to support and nurture your employees, you may be stifling their talents through micromanagement, overly loose supervision, or poorly communicated goals, among other management sins. The good news about this potentially alarming revelation is that it’s an area you firmly control.
You see flashes of true ability – maybe even occasional brilliance – in your employee. So why do they fail to live up to that potential?
As a leader who cares about developing the skills, abilities, and professional growth trajectory of your employees, it can be frustrating to feel like they aren’t making the most of their talents. Sometimes, you might wonder if it’s a question of knowledge or determination: Don’t they understand what it takes to do their best? or are they just unmotivated??
Obviously, there’s a reason you believe that your employees’ “typical performance” (what they usually do) isn’t as high as their “maximal performance” or capabilities (the best they can do) — so as a first step, it’s important to explain and count that.
Perhaps you are thinking of a specific example of their peak performance, such as delivering a compelling presentation under high-stakes circumstances, or particular instances when they demonstrated valuable skills, such as. intelligence (recognizing an important hidden pattern, turning chaos and complexity into order, learning new things), curiosity (asking a really meaningful question), or creativity (delivering an unexpected insight, generating original and useful new ideas). Obviously they’re able to perform at that level if they’ve done it once, let alone multiple times.
Therefore, it is important to find the reasons why your employees are not reaching their full potential. We found three main categories to explore: personal challenges, interpersonal issues, or your own leadership.
One reason people fail to reach their full potential is that few people know their actual potential in the first place. Realize that in any area of skill, talent, or performance, there is usually less of 10% overlap between how good people are and how good they think. As a leader, you can give a powerful gift to the team members you lead and manage: see what they can do, sometimes even before they can, and holding a mirror. In fact, feedback is a critical factor in employee performance, but RESEARCH REVEALS shows that two-thirds of the time, it fails to make others better, or even make them even worse!
Make sure you specifically praise the moments when your employee did their best, so they know what “excellent” looks like, and engage them in conversations about what they did to succeed in those moments. Did they nail the speech because they took the time to practice and prepare? Do they interview audience members beforehand so they can cite relevant examples? Helping them dig deeper into the reasons behind their success will help show them how to replicate it. In other words, think for yourself as a coach than the boss.
Another major driver of people failing to reach their potential is, quite simply, MOTIVATION. If you’ve seen your employees perform at high levels in the past, then it’s clear that ability isn’t the problem here – so their current level of motivation is worth investigating. You can check with your team member to see what is going on, especially if there is a sudden change. Maybe they are going through something challenging in their personal livesor is on the way to combustion and need to rest. Or maybe they feel stagnant in their role and need new challenges, including stretch goals, that you can help them create.
Sometimes your employees’ poor performance stems from the circumstances surrounding them — ie, other people. Like Boris Groysberg and his colleagues SHOWS, star employees who migrate to new companies often fail to replicate their success, because the supporting components that helped propel their ascent (such as company-specific knowledge or networks) are no longer in place. In fact, although organizations typically pay more for external hires than for internally promoted employees, external hires often fail to increase as great value as internal candidates, not least because many of the conditions that made them successful in the past may no longer be there.
Similarly, your employee may have hit a plateau as a result of new team dynamics (perhaps after a co-worker left or joined the team), changed roles or responsibilities, or a perceived lack of recognition or a change in status (someone with a promotion or bonus). Your employee’s talents may not have changed – but their ability to execute them has. If that’s the case, you’ll want to honestly discuss the dynamic and identify opportunities to reframe or resolve the conflict — or move them into a new role where they’re more likely to succeed.
It’s not good to think about, but remember that in at least 30% of employees’ performance is the product of how they are managed, meaning your leadership can play a large role in determining whether or not people reach their potential. It is possible that, despite the intention to support and nurture your employee, you may stifle their talents by micromanagement, too loose a handleor bad announced objectivesamong other administrative offenses.
The good news about this potentially alarming revelation is that it’s an area you firmly control. By means of A/B testing strategies around how you communicate with your employees, give feedback, empower them, and manage them, you can directly examine the results of the guidance you provide and check if the main cause of their poor performance is actually . . . you. It is useful to test strategies that have worked with them in the past, as well as those that have proven effective with other employees.
All people are unique and no strategy works for everyone. That said, it’s often true that if you spend more time with an employee you have a trusting relationship with and give them more feedback (including constructive criticism, praise, recognition, and resources), they’re more likely to reach their potential than if you do the exact opposite.
Finally, remember that people are people, and people are not machines. This means that you cannot expect everyone to perform at their highest level or full capability all of their time. In fact, the most creative and talented people on earth – in any field – can be inconsistent in their performance, because inspiration is a strong driver of results and the main fuel for new and unique work. Cutting people some slack and respecting their natural cycles, while of course which makes them accountable when appropriate, is what good managers do. In fact, the inconsistency or poor element that underpins work performance may also apply to you – so it might help to check if you reach your own potential, and what might be holding you back from doing so.
Understanding the performance gaps of your employees – and, perhaps, your own – is an exercise in mindfulness and empathy. By exploring the above possibilities, you will be in a better position to help guide your team to be the best more often.