In the last several years, the world of work has changed dramatically. There was the pandemic, the resultant ongoing mental health crisis, a reassessment of what is important in work and in life, the rise of remote work, and the Great Resignation. There is growing awareness of the realities of the workplace— toxic culture and poor management practices, leading to such coping strategies as “acting your wage” or quiet quitting.
Employee productivity is no longer a given. Recognizing and managing underperforming employees requires a manager to have the right skills, strategies, and level of emotional intelligence.
However, great leaders focus on high performance, everyone doing their best, rather than preventing underperformance. They strive to empower, inspire, and motivate their teams.
Good managers support their teams in doing their jobs and performing at the expected level. Great leaders help them realize their potential and thrive at work, which, in turn, motivates their employees to go the extra mile.
How to spot underperforming employees
How do you know when someone is underperforming? An underperforming employee consistently does not deliver on the agreed goals of their job. Underperformance is a recurring issue rather than a one-off problem or a mistake. Underperformance can happen to any employee—fresh on the job or late in their career.
It’s not hard to spot underperforming employees. The employee is not performing at the required level when consistently missing deadlines or handing in subpar-quality work. Their manager may be getting complaints from teams that they work with. They may be absent from work more frequently or present but not engaged. In extreme cases, they may be non-compliant with the business rules or policies, negative, and disruptive.
How underperformance manifests depends on the type of the job. If a B2B salesperson is underperforming, their manager may notice their sales tumble or receive a complaint from a prospective customer about delays. Or, a manager of an underperforming accounting employee might notice mistakes in their reports and that they do not follow the right approval processes.
When a team member is not performing well, it has an effect on their team and business overall. Their team may feel more stressed, the team morale may be affected, productivity may go down, and the quality of work overall will likely deteriorate.
Why are they underperforming?
There may be a number of reasons why your team member is underperforming. These may be job, organization, or life-related:
- The employee is unclear on the job expectations
- What they do in their role is different from their original job description
- They do not have the right skills for the job or they were not trained to do it
- There was no onboarding, or it was insufficient
- They are not a good fit for the job
- Poor leadership
- Poor communication
- The workplace culture is toxic
- Lack of work-life balance, stress, or burnout
- Health or personal circumstances
Whatever it is, if your employee is underperforming, they are unhappy. It is your job as their manager to understand the causes and support them to get back on track using your leadership skills and available organizational tools and resources.
How to manage underperformance
When managing underperforming employees, the manager follows a particular process. This process generally includes five stages:
- Prepare information and gather facts
- Meet with the underperforming employee as soon as possible
- Agree on a performance improvement plan
- Have regular check-ins
- Decide on the next steps, for example, whether you need to take the performance management route
It’s important to note that emerging technologies like AI content analysis can also assist in identifying performance issues and providing data-driven insights.
Because conflict management and resolution do not come naturally to many of us, managers may avoid facing underperformance issues. However, underperformance needs to be addressed head-on and as early as possible.
As a manager, you start by gathering the facts and specific examples of underperforming employees.
At this stage, you may want to ask the employee’s colleagues and other managers for feedback, collate their previous performance reviews, and your own observations. Stay as objective as possible, and let the data paint the picture.
2. Stay open-minded
Start by understanding why the employee is underperforming. Don’t assume that you know what’s going on. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the best.
Prepare to listen to your employees and really hear what they have to say. Practice active listening and ask open-ended questions.
Are they clear on the expectations of their job? Do they have the right skills? Are there any personal or health issues that they are struggling with? Are they motivated? Once you understand the cause of the issue, you can develop a solution together.
3. Provide resources and support
Be clear about your expectations. Make sure the employee understands what is expected of them in their role, their responsibilities, goals, and deadlines.
If the employee does not have the necessary skills or knowledge, offer them available training and development opportunities. Review their goals together to make sure they are realistic and that there are no dependencies on people or factors outside of their control.
Additionally, leveraging tools like recruitment software can optimize the hiring process, allowing your team to bring in new talents seamlessly, which in turn can positively impact the team’s performance and productivity.
When setting goals, use the SMART framework to make sure they are clear and achievable. For example, when tasking a marketing manager to buy a domain for a new website, clarify your requirements and vendor selection criteria.
4. Help them see the bigger picture
After the pandemic and two years of uncertainty, many people reviewed their life and work situations and gained clarity on their goals, values, and priorities as never before. When they can afford to do so, people prefer to choose work that matters, has meaning, and makes a difference.
What the employee does has a direct impact on the company’s performance. Help them see this link. They are not just a product manager—they are helping the company take their customer service to the next level. They are not just a finance manager—they help identify funds to invest in new technologies and help grow the business.
5. If in doubt, over-communicate
Your employees can’t read your mind. Unless you tell them, they don’t know what you expect and how you see and measure success.
Once you agree on a performance improvement plan with the underperforming employee, you need to provide them with regular, straightforward, but constructive feedback. Two-way communication is key so they know how they are doing and what they need to continue working on.
Successful managers communicate. They use formal performance reviews to share their feedback, but also provide real-time feedback in their interactions with the employees and have regular one-to-one meetings.
6. Create a positive atmosphere
We spend a big part of our productive lives at work. What a waste if this time is spent in a toxic, negative environment where we are unhappy, unappreciated, and our talents and abilities underutilized!
You can not control the company culture, but you can create a positive, supportive work environment in your team. Make sure that your employees feel supported.
Model the right behaviors by being understanding and patient, support them consistently, and provide the resources they need to succeed.
7. Really care about their future
Your underperforming employees have a life mission, values, and dreams. Do you know what they are? Did you ever ask why they joined your company? What attracted them?
For example, if a marketer in your team keeps talking about why cloud communications is the future, is it because they are excited about technology and see potential benefits for the company? If so, you could look into including them in the new technology implementation project, or consider whether the product management team would be a better fit for them.
The best leaders don’t manage their employees—they mentor them to help them gain a clearer idea of their strengths, what they want from work, what direction they want to take with their careers, and formulate a long-term career plan and objectives.
When you really care about your employees’ future and help them thrive professionally and personally, your team will be more motivated to be productive and over-perform.
8. Grow as a leader
There are good managers, but there are not so many great leaders. If you are familiar with the concept of a servant leader, this is the style of leadership to aspire to if you want to have a high-performing team.
Servant leaders are self-aware and emotionally intelligent, humble, and transparent. They do not micromanage or see employees as “doers.” They are team players and talented mentors who lead by example and believe in, trust, and empower their teams. They want their employees to thrive.
9. Prioritize mental health
Having lived through the pandemic, many of us had our first experiences of loss, grief, serious illness, and mental health issues. Many businesses successfully became more flexible, and remote work allowed many of us better work-life balance.
However, some folks struggled with isolation and loneliness.
Employees are human. They can not be productive if they aren’t happy and healthy. As a manager, to build a high-performing team, you need to prioritize your team’s (and your own) mental health and wellbeing. Walk the talk—have a chat with your HR team to see what resources and best practices are available.
The path to high performance—and business success
An employee can be underperforming for a number of reasons. As a manager, it is your job to make sure that your team is happy and healthy, that your work environment is positive and conducive to mental well-being, and that your team members enjoy their work and see how it feeds into a bigger purpose.
Above all, you need to lead by example—in terms of performance and productivity, but also balance and well-being.
There are tools that can help with workforce management optimization, such as workforce management, but it is ultimately up to managers to ensure that their teams are engaged, empowered, and productive. Build a happy, high-performing team, and you will have built a thriving, successful business.
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