Managing Underperformance

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It can be baffling when an employee you believe capable of excellent results consistently underperforms.

The first step to resolving the situation is to determine the underlying reason. Meet privately, and ask how they feel they are progressing with their assignments.

An open-ended question encourages the employee to take the conversation in whatever direction feels relevant to them—which is exactly what you want, since they are more likely to reveal their perspective and help you understand the nature of any challenges.

In many cases, the employee will be aware of a problem and may be secretly relieved you noticed they are struggling. If you conduct the conversation in a supportive and respectful way, most will at least offer clues to why they aren’t delivering on expectations—if not tell you outright.

Others may not be aware they are underperforming, or will offer deflections and excuses. Your response should essentially be the same: be direct and tell them you have concerns. Avoid an accusatory tone, stay calm, and provide specific examples. Make it clear you want to work with them to resolve the issue.

Here are some of the most common reasons for underperformance, and how to address them effectively.

Lack of Motivation

People feel motivated when they are challenged to deliver something that uses their skills and expertise, and recognized for their achievements and abilities. Lack of motivation can stem from feeling unappreciated, or when the work itself seems meaningless.

For example, the purpose and value of a project might be perfectly obvious to you, but if it hasn’t been communicated clearly enough to your team, they might struggle to rally behind it. Let each person know specifically how they are critical to the project’s success. Thank them personally when they hit milestones.

An experienced employee might also have valuable insight into how to improve processes or outcomes, and feel demoralized that they haven’t been consulted—especially if they’ve been overlooked before.

If you acknowledge their frustration, invite their ideas, and determine appropriate ways for them to contribute in the future, it can go a long way to getting them back on track.

Lack of Confidence

Lack of confidence most often strike new hires, but can happen to anyone. Some employees feel anxious without explicit direction, or fear approaching authority figures (like their manager) with questions, because they feel it will reflect on them poorly.

If you sense lack of confidence is the problem, make sure people know you are there as a resource, and work together to define a clear work plan.

Lack of confidence can also stem from a lack of training. Never assume a person knows exactly what to do when assigning new tasks. Provide new hires with the chance to learn procedures thoroughly before expecting too much.

Personal Challenges

Relationship troubles, stress, anxiety or other mental wellness challenges, or physical illnesses can all affect productivity on the job. Addictions, concern about an ailing family member, and financial or legal worries can also have a significant impact on performance.

Your employee has the right to keep these matters private. If they indicate they are experiencing significant stresses, assure them of your support and communicate with them regularly so you can manage workloads and timelines accordingly.

Depending on the severity of the situation, the employee may need to take temporary leave, or work a more flexible schedule. Accommodation while an employee works through serious challenges pays off, as termination can be a complex and costly endeavour.

You can also suggest your employee contact your business or employee assistance program for immediate, confidential support. As a business owner or manager, you can access guidance on how to deal with such a situation, especially if you have no internal Human Resources experts to consult.

Poor Work Habits

Good work habits are learned. If you have an employee who is always on social media, chat programs, or surfing the Internet, takes long breaks, and leaves early, it affects not only their own performance, but your entire team.

While this behaviour can also be apparent in people lacking motivation or facing personal challenges, the outcome is not as promising for those who are simply disengaged. You will need to work with the employee to develop a performance plan, define specific goals, and meet regularly to review their progress. Documentation of this process is essential, as should they not deliver results, they may need to be terminated.

Keeping Things Going

Of course, the most effective ways to manage underperformance will also help prevent it: ensure that you communicate goals and expectations clearly, reward good results, and treat your employees with respect. Managing with these guidelines in mind will always yield good results.


If your organization is covered under an Arete® assistance program and you need support, don’t hesitate to call:

1 877 922-8646

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