10 Ways to Handle Underperforming Employees

Issues with performance are not easy to spot, and not easy to deal with. Maybe an employee is not meeting deadlines, maybe they are not getting expected results, or maybe their work isn’t up to company standards. Your leadership style has a huge impact on your team’s performance. So we encourage companies to use a systematized process to find the root cause of performance issues, address them, and finally, improve.

Here are a few steps managers should take into consideration when working with underperforming team members:

1. It’s not you, it’s me.

The first thing you should do is take a step back and evaluate the problem holistically. You should ask yourself first: Are there things that could be improved at the company level, or in the way I’m running my current team?

It could be a problem in the team’s structure, training, or even smaller details. For instance, a technology glitch may be negatively impacting someone’s ability to get through small tasks which then adds up to impacting their general performance. Try to pay special attention to small talk and comments made by your coworkers and employees on the floor about pain points they’re feeling throughout their day-to-day. The root cause for an issue may be a very easy fix if you understand what it is!

2. Be thoughtful with your approach.

Never discuss a delicate issue like performance in the heat of the moment or during an argument. This is where you could complicate your professional relationship or, in a worst case scenario, say something that could cause further problems to the point of needing to get HR involved. Be calm and collected when approaching an employee, and have a plan to help get them back on track. Emotions and personal relationships should not come into play, this is a conversation about performance.

3. The sooner, the better.

If you take too long to address underperformance and its causes, your employees might not even realize that what they are doing is wrong. Old habits die hard, so if you let habits that lead to underperformance linger, it will take a while to get things back on track, causing even more delays. The sooner you figure out the problem and the solution, the better.

4. Teach your team to fish…

Proper training is key for building a successful team at scale. Training during onboarding is critical to an employee’s success and is also the best time to state the company’s vision, mission, and goals. One thing to note is that training should never end once someone has finished on-boarding and ramp. It’s imperative to continue training throughout an employee’s life cycle so you can continue setting expectations around best practices that might otherwise be forgotten and lead to underperformance.

5. Don’t assume. Know.

Assuming that you know the problem won’t do, and asking around about an employee is not enough: You need to address employees directly in order to find out what is truly causing issues. Discussing performance with your employees is the first step when looking for problems. The employees can point out some issues themselves, acknowledge their behavior, or even ask you about things that weren’t clear to them which could have affected their work.

6. How am I doing?

Feedback should go both ways! Asking employees about your management performance might help you gain insight about how to get the most out of your people. Therefore, asking them what they would like to see can also be very effective. This doesn’t mean that you are obligated to implement all of their feedback, but it’s tremendously helpful to understand what your employees need from you to perform at their best. In order to see the whole picture, you have to look through the eyes of everyone involved.

7. Teamwork!

Sometimes, even with previous training and great experience, an employee might just feel… lost! It is important that they know their role and their importance in the team. Not only will they feel valued, but it will also help them understand how their performance affects others. Understanding the entire process helps them plan better, predict outcomes, and even work in a way that might make their coworkers’ jobs easier. Once that’s clear to them, the next step is to help them plan out their goals and hold them accountable once you’ve agreed upon what they are.

8. Acknowledge and reward.

If you point out negative behavior such as underperformance and an employee changes this behavior and implements the feedback, it’s extremely important to acknowledge the good work and positive change. Doing this will encourage the positive changes and increase motivation to stay on track.

9. Follow up.

It’s incredibly common to have a meeting where a manager and a direct report set goals, and then the second you leave the meeting, the goals are forgotten about. The follow up post-meeting is arguably more important than the meeting in some ways, because it is an opportunity to review the plans you made, the instructions that were given, and put the plan on paper. Ask the employee to follow up in email with a recap of the meeting and both acknowledge the goals and to-dos in writing on the email thread. This helps keep everyone accountable and on the same page.

10. We’re all people.

Always remember that your team members have more going on in their lives outside of work. Personal factors should always be taken into consideration, especially if you are aware of any external stress they might be experiencing. Sometimes there’s a simple solution, such as encouraging them to take more personal time during the week after work to go to the gym or see friends.

Goals and interests differ from person to person, and affect performance. If your employee feels like their job is somehow stopping them from working on these areas of their lives, they might (even subconsciously) not do so well at work. Having a healthy balance can help employees come to work with more energy and focus when they’re in the office.

Summing Up

Employees are the most valuable asset to any company. In order to get the most out of your team, it is crucial to provide an environment that promotes open communication, sets clear expectations, rewards positive changes in behavior and creates a culture of accountability and empathy.