How to Manage Poor Performing Employees

How to Manage Poor Performing Employees

Dealing with underperforming team members is one of the most challenging aspects of a manager’s job. Because it is so difficult to handle, and because most managers are never trained to handle these kinds of situations properly, many avoid dealing with it altogether.

Unfortunately, underperformance at work is very pervasive and has such a negative impact on the workplace that it can’t be ignored.

According to Gallup, only 32.5% of U.S. employees are engaged in their work. That means almost 7 out of every 10 employees are not doing well at work. Does that mean that they are all bad employees? Of course not..

Underperformance is not equal to being bad or incompetent. The reason for underperformance is seldom so straightforward.

Why Do Employees Underperform?

Recognize that you may be the problem (or part of it)

Yes, you read that right. All too often bad managers are the reason why employees are unhappy and don’t perform well at their tasks. If someone on your team is not performing, you could be partly to blame.

There are many ways in which managers can cause those working under them to be disengaged. Think of your own experiences working with managers. Are you making the same mistakes? Or are you doing something else that might affect your team negatively.

Conducting an anonymous survey might shed some light on the issue.

 Personal Problems

Our personal and work lives have become so intertwined that it’s impossible to attend to the one and ignore the other. Influences from one inevitably bleed into the other. Employees arrive at home with work problems still fresh in their minds, and they bring a night’s argument, a child’s suspension from school, a husband that’s been fired, or a parent’s illness with them to work.

What goes on in a person’s personal life can dramatically affect their performance at work.

Inability to Focus and concentrate

A noisy office where people come and go constantly, talk at the top of their voices, or keep interrupting others is not conducive to productivity. Some people need silence to be able to concentrate and work.

Where a distracting working environment is the cause, the issue needs to be addressed. However, there may also be underlying behavioural or medication issues that can affect a person’s performance.

Interpersonal issues

Conflict in the workplace creates tension, making it difficult for some people to distance themselves and continue with their work. Some sensitive individuals can develop an inability to work effectively and become totally unproductive depending on the severity of the situation.


Sometimes an employee finds themselves in a position they are not ready for because they don’t have the skills to do the job. Knowing this undermines their confidence, which exacerbates the situation.

This happens when a person is incorrectly hired for or promoted to a position.

Poor onboarding can also contribute to an employee not performing to expectations. Proper onboarding will engage new employees and make expectations clear to them.

Misjudged Appointment

A good worker may have been appointed or promoted to a position they are not suited to. The person may actually be an excellent worker if they are in the right position.

The person may have accepted the position because they needed work, not because they are suited to it. Or an employee may have been promoted to a position that they can handle but they dislike the particular work or role. So this person is doing the work, but they’re not excelling at it.

Health-related issues

Health reasons for underperformance are a thorny issue. Oftentimes the workplace is not aware of the issue because the employee keeps mum about it and only reveals it once it impacts the work very obviously. Mental health issues are particularly difficult to deal with due to the associated stigma. Few people are prepared to come forward with a mental health problem, so it’s difficult to resolve.

Negative Team or Department Culture

A pervasive negative attitude toward management, the work, or the company at large can affect an employee’s performance. Over time, a negative atmosphere undermines any good intentions a worker might have had.

Heavy Workload

A heavy workload is one of the primary causes of stress among employees. It is one of the effects of an excessive workload.

A stressed employee may lose motivation and have a difficult time completing their tasks. Stress also leads to poor focus and fatigue, which impacts work performance negatively.

Addressing Underperformance

The good news is that employees want managers to address their performance. According to Gallup, 72% of respondents feel that their performance would improve with corrective feedback. Here are some suggestions for handling an underperforming employee.

Don’t ignore the problem

This kind of issue is often not dealt with directly because most managers find it awkward and they have not been trained to deal with it effectively.

However,  ignoring it won’t make it go away. The problem will probably get worse and the manager will get a reputation as someone who tolerates mediocre work.

Make a list of what went wrong

Exactly why are you unhappy with the individual’s performance? At some point, you will have to address the issue directly with the employee, and you need to be prepared for that conversation.

Take some time to record what the person is doing to let the team down. What is the person doing that is not acceptable? Keep the conversation that you will have later in mind. You want to be clear, factual, and objective.

The list will help to guide the conversation and prevent it from going off on a tangent when you discuss the situation with the employee. It will also help you to give the individual a concrete view of the problem as you see it.

Consider your role in the situation

You can take it for granted that your behavior and expectations play a role in the situation. It takes two to tango, after all. Be prepared to see your role in the situation and to make adjustments if needed.

Be thorough in your investigation

To ensure objectivity, consider asking one or two colleagues what they think of the situation. Be very careful who you ask for an opinion, so it doesn’t backfire at some point. Make it clear that you are asking to get a more complete picture in case you’re missing something.

Address the issue in a one-on-one meeting

Before you address the issue, continue your investigation by asking the person how they are doing. This is an important point. You may not be aware of an underlying personal issue that’s affecting the person’s work.

Also, ask how the work is going. You might not get a straight answer, so be prepared and ask questions that will address some issues that you have. The answers will make it easier to tailor your feedback and feedback.

Some questions you can ask:

  • How are things going?
  • How is your work going?
  • On a scale of 1 – 10, how happy are you in your role?
  • Is anything hampering your task? What can we do to resolve it?
  • What is your least favorite part of your work?
  • How are you coping with the workload?
  • Is anything specific stressing you out about your work?
  • What’s the one thing that should change to make you happier in your work?

The answers to these questions will give you a better idea of how to address the employee’s lack of performance.

Confirm if the employee is willing to make some changes

You don’t want to launch into a coaching session or make all sorts of promises to help the employee if the person is not willing to put in some effort to turn things around.

The employee must understand the seriousness of the situation and show a genuine willingness to change and improve otherwise you are wasting your time.

Confirm the employee understands the seriousness of the situation

Make sure the employee is clear about what needs to change from here on and why their work is not up to standard. Give specific examples of how their lack of performance affected the team. Let the person see clearly the consequences for everyone and the company if everyone doesn’t pull their weight.

Emphasize job expectations

Make sure that the employee understands what is expected of them. Consider that only about 50% of the workforce say they understand work expectations. So don’t feel you are repeating yourself, rather find ways to be very clear so there can be no misunderstanding.

Be very clear on the areas that need improvement.

Make a Plan Together

Work together on the next steps, setting out what you and the employee need to do differently in the future. Making the employee part of deciding on the next steps ensures that the individual will take ownership of improving their performance.

Also, agree on how and when you will measure progress. Make sure to offer help and resources should it be necessary.

Manage the time for the improvements to take place

Don’t expect a major change the very next day. People need time to adjust to change.

So, be flexible, but at the same time, set regular meetings to monitor progress. You should meet with the employee once a week until they improve their performance. Make this expectation clear when you write down the agreement.

This step ensures that the situation will be resolved, one way or another.

Put your agreement in writing and email it to the employee. This leaves a paper trail if further steps need to be taken at a later stage.

Know when it’s time to let go and let the person go

If you have set a time limit on the improvement you expect and it hasn’t been met it is time to take action. This can take the form of reassignment or termination.

Sometimes an underperforming employee can excel in a different role. However, if this tactic doesn’t deliver the desired results, it may be time to let the person go. It may be a step that you want to avoid because it has such far-reaching consequences for the individual, but the continued presence of someone who is not engaged and doesn’t improve also has detrimental consequences for the business.

Managing an underperformer who sees nothing wrong with their performance

We have all worked with this kind of person – the one that comes across as super confident and all-knowing and yet never quite lives up to expectations. They are convinced they’re doing a great job, but the reality is different.

It is difficult to handle this kind of situation. The Harvard Business Review has a few suggestions.

Be clear about expectations and make sure they have the tools for success.

Clear employee expectations are an integral part to successfully leading and managing a team, especially team members who are not very self-aware. Clear employee expectations also contributes to a culture of accountability. In addition, check that the employee has what is necessary to make improvements, like mentorship or access to more analytics.

Assess whether you should invest more time and effort in the individual

Many people are not cut out for constant promotion and new challenges. They are satisfied to do their work well and be a valuable member of a team. It that’s a person’s ambition, it makes more sense to lower your expectations, provided the person delivers good work.

Assess whether the person will accept help.

When a person lands in a position they are not qualified for, they may try to fake success in the role. These people can fall victim to the Dunning-Krueger effect, a cognitive bias where a person overestimates their own abilities.

This cognitive bias may make it difficult for a person to accept help, in which case it may be time to withdraw your support.

Be very careful with your praise

When an employee with an exaggerated idea of their contribution does an excellent job, its important to recognize the achievement, but be specific about what you are recognizing: this job or task, not everything the person does.

Be sure to let them know what they have done well, and what they can still improve on.

Try to understand what’s behind this attitude

Look at the situation and the history behind the current situation to better understand why the person has an inflated idea of their abilities. This can help you determine what support they need to improve and succeed, or bring you to the realization that the person is not right for the job.