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How to Turn Around Underperforming Employees

There’s no avoiding it—if you lead a team, sooner or later you will need to deal with an underperforming employee. To be an effective manager, it’s critical to learn how to address these situations in a professional, fair, and diplomatic manner. 

In this post, we’ll examine how to approach these uncomfortable moments and manage them in a way that minimizes stress for you, the person concerned, and your wider team. 

Let’s take a closer look at how to turn around underperforming employees.

Take Responsibility

Far too many incidents of poor performance are made worse by managers avoiding conflict and confrontation. 

As the leader of your team, it’s your responsibility to deal with any issues that arise. It can be frustrating and demotivating for other team members if they don’t see you stepping up. 

However, if you handle the situation with ownership, the underperforming employee may actually be waiting for an opportunity to clear the air and share what’s affecting their work performance.

Understand the Root of the Problem 

It’s important to understand that there are many possible reasons for poor performance. Consider the following scenarios: 

  • The employee may be experiencing personal problems outside of work, including physical or mental health issues.

  • The employee may be unhappy in the job, due to unmet expectations or conflict with other team members.

  • The employee may not have been given the training or instruction needed to complete their work to the required standard.

Above, we’ve concentrated on examples where the employee may not be culpable. However, poor performance can simply be due to the employee lacking focus or not putting in enough effort.   

When this is the case, be sure to have an open discussion to ascertain what is going on. It’s important to treat the employee as a person and not a mere cog in the company machine. 

Be Honest

When you raise the issue to the employee, be sure to concentrate on the problem and NOT the person. Be specific about why you’re having the discussion, what area of performance is falling short, and what kind of improvement you want to see. 

There’s no reason to turn this into a confrontational argument. The reality is that plenty of good and successful employees need guidance to reach their potential. 

To keep things friendly, use an ice breaker like sharing an example of something you had to improve in the past. Perhaps say something like “I struggled a lot to get that done on time in the early days, but it helped to do X, Y, and Z.” 

Often there are several informal discussions before a formal process begins, but honesty is always key. It’s probably unwise to include a threat of formal action as part of an initial discussion, although every situation is different.

Welcome Feedback

It’s important to have a two-way discussion when discussing poor performance. Ask for feedback on what you’re saying and listen openly for the employee’s take on the situation.

There are always two sides to these stories, so you must be prepared to hear new information. It’s possible that this information could change the situation, if the employee reveals mitigating circumstances or factors you were unaware of.

For example, they could reveal a conflict with another team member or a significant personal problem. You will need to “think on your feet,” or even adjourn to consider the most appropriate next steps. The two-way discussion will also reveal how straightforward it will be to work with the person to resolve the issues.

Create an Improvement Plan

End each discussion with a clear set of measurable goals and a firm agreement on when they will be reviewed. 

Be sure to involve the employee on decisions to move the situation forward. Asking them for ideas on improving their performance ensures they feel heard and truly involved in the process. You can also discuss whether what you’re asking for is feasible. 

At this point, it may be necessary to define where you are in terms of the formal process—there should always be some documentation of the meeting.

As a manager, it’s crucial to follow up exactly as discussed. If you’ve agreed to spend time providing extra guidance to help improve the employee’s performance, you must deliver on your promise.

Reward Positive Changes

Managers should also make a point of monitoring, noticing, and praising improvements to performance.

For example, if the employee shows improvement and works hard on their next assignment, make sure you tell them that you noticed. Give them public recognition at a team meeting, company all-hands, or via email. 

It’s important to dispel the myth that managers can avoid staff performance problems by simply hiring the “right” people. Not only is doing so one of the biggest challenges for small business owners, but people and their circumstances can also change. 

The good news is that when handled correctly, these conflicts can present opportunities for honest dialogue and stronger team relationships in the future. 

To learn more about conflict management in the workplace, check out How to Manage Conflict in Remote Teams Effectively.

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